Elvis & Nixon

Yep. Actually a true, and very funny, story.

Upon seeing the trailer you may have felt a ‘Woah, that’s weirdly brilliant!’ feeling. That feeling lasts the entirety of watching the film itself.  The meeting of two of America’s then most famous/infamous men did actually occur in 1970. In many ways the men were actually quite simillar, seemingly rooted by their conservative values and working class upbringing. Yes, Elvis was the hip-swinging, gyrating King of Rock’n’Roll and Nixon was, well, Richard Nixon. but they did have some shared interests. Or, at least, Elvis thought they did and desperately pursued a meeting with the then President of the United States. The film follows Elvis on his quest and the subsequent meeting, to much audience amusement.

1970, Graceland.  Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is watching television on his three television screens. He isn’t happy at what he sees. He sees lots of drugs, lots of protest and lots of unnecessary deaths. He decides that he can do something about it, using his celebrity for good and decides to become an undercover agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He just needs to meet with President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) first to get it all organised. Luckily he’s got friends Jerry (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) to do that. Nixon’s underlings Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Chapin (Evan Peters) are more than keen, but it looks like their boss will need a lot of persuading. 

The film uses the seemingly unlikeliness of the situation/s to advantage. Quite often (arguably too often) the laughs arise from the ‘No way! I don’t believe it.’ school of comedy. Yet that isn’t such a bad thing when you look at just how good the source material and it’s adaptation to screen is. The gags are good, well written and paced and told with great delivery.

I am a huge fan of Michael Shannon (Midnight Special was an underrated gem, click here of review) and he soars in this comedic-yet-not-really-comedic role. At times I had to remind myself I wasn’t actually watching Elvis Presley, not necessarily due to his look but due to his personality, exuding the aura and charisma of one of music’s true greats.

What helps is the film’s moments where he interacts with us mere mortals. The expressions of those he comes across, the mystification and disbelief, do not get old or less funny. His foe-turned-friend Nixon, as played by Kevin Spacey, also creates a truly memorable and hilarious persona, behaving in a way that certainly seems Nixon-esque. Shannon does steal the show though with the best lines and the fact he can truly pull of huge medallions and a massive gold belt.

The film also utilizes its supporting cast to great effect. I loved both Peters and Hanks as the acting-older-than-their-age young suits, their scenes with Spacey were standout. I also rather enjoyed an unrecognisable Knoxville in his brief but memorable role as Elvis’s close friend. Pettyfer, as Elvis’s BFF, was the only disappointment. He should have been a character played with warmth and wit. Instead he was a bit of a charisma vacuum.

All in all, Elvis & Nixon is fun to watch based on a true story movie that is more than a little bit amusing. Worth a watch.

stars

Sing Street

1980s. Dublin. New Romantics.

If the prospect of those three words being combined into a film does not fill you with glee I’m not sure how well we’re going to get on or how well you’re going to get on with this film. If you haven’t jumped ship  and are still reading – then this film may just be for you! From John Carney, the writer-director-producer of  Once and Begin Again, comes another musical tale about love and friendship. But this time our main characters are teenagers and they are forming a band The Commitments-style. The result is one of the most rewarding, enjoyable and grin-inducing films of the year so far.

It’s 1985. Like all epic stories it started with money problems and a girl. Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is forced to leave his expensive fee-paying school and attend the local state school Synge Street CBS. The family has little money coming in as patriarch Robert (Aidan Gillen) is finding his architecture practice is not really required during a financial crisis. It’s at his new school, well on the school’s doorstep, that Connor first meets Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Raphina is an older lady, one year older, and is the most glamorous/gorgeous/extraordinary woman Cosmo has ever seen. New-found friend and wanna-be entrepreneur Darren (Ben Carolan) explains the school gossip that Raphina is a model who will soon be moving to England to make her fortune. Connor bravely introduces himself to Raphina and offers her a job that weekend to star in his band’s music video. After a bit of charming she agrees to take the job. Except Connor doesn’t actually have a band – yet. With audiophile elder brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) to guide him surely it’ll all be easy, won’t it..?

There are so many reasons to love this film – many of which I don’t want to discuss in too much detail or give away as it’s discovering them for yourself that only add to the brilliance. However I will briefly give the headlines of the reasons for my adoration. For favourite character I am torn between Brendan and bespeckled multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna). The soundtrack will undoubtedly be one of the best of the year – the classics are superbly chosen and the original songs (such Riddle of the Model) are wonderful tributes with some infectiously catchy riffs. The storyline is told with great empathy and sympathy. This is a film that truly cares about its characters. The music videos the band makes are both hilarious and nostalgia-inducing (even for those of us who were not alive in 1985!) I full enjoyed the references to The Cure, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet to name just three – I can only imagine the depth of the enjoyment for those who leaved and breathed this music scene. The friendship between the newly-formed band is heart-warming and believable thanks to some fantastic chemistry between them. The film also manages to cover lots of ‘big’ topics – mental health, adultery, abuse – sensitively and appropriately. There’s a great balance here between pathos and humour. 

My main criticism would be the treatment of Raphina. Boynton does an excellent job with the material she is given but the presentation/treatment of her character is far too Maniac Pixie Dream Girl. For the most part we only learn about Raphina through what Connor (whom Raphina later renames Cosmo) sees and hears. She doesn’t transcend being his figure of worship and far too much screen time is dedicated to his male-gaze watching her. Whilst the dialogue of most of the characters is rooted in a degree of realism or believability Raphina’s craic is over-rehearsed. Arguably this could be a reflection of her personality as a character but for the most part her dialogue rarely lands as effectively like the other characters. Any film that focuses on a romantic crush, be that of a man or woman, must deal with the universality of the story arc as a duel-edged sword.  Whilst it makes for an accessible storyline, as the majority of the world’s population would have had a romantic crush at some point or another,  it means we then have to believe in the crush and that all the turmoil it brings our lead character is worth it. Is Raphina worth it?

Aside from my ponderings on potentially dubious representation, I truly loved Sing Street. So much so I think a rewatch in the new few weeks will be in order. It tickles the funny bone whilst tugging at the heart strings. It’s an old-fashioned story told with great warmth and will great skill. And, for New Romantics at heart like me, it’s chance to feel immersed in and nostalgic for a lifetime I never lived.

4.5

 

 

 

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

Further proof that films are like buses

Occasionally, more frequently than a blue moon but not as often as a full moon, two films about the same topic will come out at around the same time. The most famous example would be 1998’s apocalyptic clash between Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (to save you from speculating, I prefer the latter). And now, in 2016, we have two films about ‘the world’s worst opera singer’ Florence Foster Jenkins. Mme Jenkins was born in 1868 and spent many of the latter years of her life as part of New York’s aristocratic music scene. Renowned for being a very generous benefactor of ‘struggling’ artists she was unsurprisingly popular, so much so her inner circle were able to put up with her recitals – recitals which recordings prove were devoid of tone, rhythm, pitch and sustainment of a single note.  Last month’s magnificent Marguerite was inspired by Florence Foster Jenkins infamous legend – transplanting the character to 1920s France. Now we have one of the grand dames of acting playing her in a biopic of her life in a production that is difficult to avoid comparison to its wonderful European spiritual counterpart

.After an incredibly well-received production in front of a gathering of her various women’s groups, most of which she chairs, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) decides she wants to get back into the swing of regular rehearsing again – ideally culminating in a grand performance. She sets her loving husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) on the case. During auditions they find the perfect candidate in the form of Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). McMoon rehearses with Florence daily and swiftly becomes part of the furniture for Florence. Things aren’t as easy for McMoon as he must deal with the fact that he employer is the worst singer he has ever heard, something Florence’s British ex-thespian husband does not appear to acknowledge. Then again neither of them acknowledge the fact he lives in an apartment in the city with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)…

As I have stated previously it is very hard to separate this from Marguerite which I enjoyed tremendously. It seems bitterly unfair to draw a comparison between two films that, subject matter aside, would never have been compared in terms of place of origin, cast or budget. However, and I have no qualms in admitting this,  I think Marguerite is the superior of the two. I really struggled when watching Florence Foster Jenkins for a multitude of reasons, reasons which have not really been addressed by the majority of reviews which shine the film’s praises.

I found the tone rather one-note (ironic considering the focus of the film!) with a plot that meandered between events and scenes. Streep’s characterisation at times bordered on pastiche. Could it be that Streep prefered to let her character reach for the high notes without providing the filler? However during the film’s quieter moments Streep really brings the character to life with some much needed depth with a revelation about 30 minutes in that does provoke a much-needed shift in tone. Admittedly this can be a common problem with ‘true story’ films as often truth can be stranger than fiction, making the truth rather difficult to believe. And yes, in case you were wondering, the singing is as bad as you’d think it would be. How the film portrays this singing is another aspect I found quite bristling when watching as I felt that the audience are called on more frequently to laugh at her rather than with her. As opposed to presenting her as a woman with a passion that truly gave her a purpose for living (*ahem* Marguerite) the film has would could almost be perceived as a mean streak as it laughs at her delusions instead.

This is not helped by the rather hollow archetype Grant portrays as her husband who spends most of his time maintaining Florence’s facade – that’s when he’s not entertaining his mistress. The reasoning for her presence is scarcely explained and results in Ferguson being vastly underused. Helberg (best known for playing Howard in The Big Bang Theorygrates profoundly as a camp closeted wannabe man about town.  The fact he spends the majority of the film with a fixed expression of embarrassed bewilderment only reinforces the sentiment that Florence is a figure of fun as opposed to one who requires understanding.

The film’s message is decidedly unclear.Many reviews refer to the affectionate and heartfelt treatment the film gives its title character. Instead the film feels light on charm, instead possessing a simplistic plot that is full of encouragement to point and laugh at a rather vulnerable figure.

2 stars

Miles Ahead

The man, a fair bit of myth and a whole lotta legend

It what may be my favourite bit of description from the year so far director/co-writer/lead Don Cheadle describes ‘Miles Ahead’ as being a ‘metaphorical’ biopic of Miles Davies. Fact and fiction are rather skillfully blended to pay tribute to an incredible musician, a leader of the genre that should be called ‘social music not jazz’. For better or for worse (depending on your view) this is not a typical music biopic – it’s free from the cliches that come with it – instead favouring a magnificent mooch-like approach in exploring the lives and loves of a true musical legend.

It’s 1979 and Miles Davies (Don Cheadle) has been a recluse for five years. A rumoured comeback – not that Davies himself would call it that – is being heard on the grapevine. Having lost this muse Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and his ‘lip’ thanks to self-medicating a variety of drugs, word gets around that Miles has actually recorded some new music – only he’s refusing to give it to his record label Columbia. That’s when Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) literally comes a-knocking on his door. The attempted interview between the pair quickly descends into utter chaos – involving drug deals, shootouts, car chases, stolen records and a few trips into memory lane.

The greatest thing about this film is the fact that when watching it it is clear that you are watching a passion project. The adoration that Cheadle clearly feels towards Miles Davis pays off completely and shines through every mannerism or rasping of dialogue. Even when high as a kite or desperately searching for his next hit he is shown to be a true man of sharp-suited cool. And even when slightly darker sides of his personality come out – such as in the flashbacks of his relationship with Francis – he is still a character we can connect with even when we may not like him at that particular moment. His self-destruction is portrayed with such affection by Cheadle – it shines through his eyes in every scene.

The events of the film are mostly fictional, inspired by the past as opposed to retelling. It’s a unique touch, a very ambitious touch at that, and one which mostly pays off in how well it reflects its subject. This is also emphasised by the construction of the film, with neat little choices of direction allowing for the present to seamlessly blend into the past. It’s not typical ‘day in the life’ fayre, nor is it rise and fall narrative. Instead the film drifts, swaggers if you will, from one moment to the next.

Like Davis the film is smooth, if occasionally rather frustrating in terms of its storytelling. It is hugely enjoyable and incredibly well-acted. And, like the man himself, never boring.

stars 

Marguerite

A tragicomedy filled with laughs and tears

Strangely, and I hate to be one of those people, but I’m going to start of by drawing comparison with this film and Eddie the Eagle . Though this may not initially be an obvious comparison, Eddie is English and obsessed with skiing whilst Marguerite is French and obsessed with opera singing, the overriding link is the very obsession which drives them. Both characters NEED that one activity that makes them feel alive, makes them feel free and makes them feel joy unlike any other. Both are based on true stories, with Marguerite being loosely based on  the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (a Meryl Streep-staring biography is out later this year). The crucial difference, however, is that Eddie could ski and had only practised ski jumping a year prior to entering the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Marguerite has apparently been singing all of her life and cannot sing. It’s not just that she cannot sing, every single note she produces is so off-key and categorically awful, and she doesn’t even know it. All Margurite knows is the joy she feels when releasing the notes, not the fact they are atonal and truly, utterly dreadful. Her husband and friends, either out of loyalty, shame or amusement have kept the truth from her. This tension leads to the aforementioned tragedy and comedy.

Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), an infamous newspaper critic, has gatecrashed a party escorted by his Dadaist artist friend Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy). His attention is immediately taken by aspiring singer Hazel (Christa Théret) who performs as warm-up to the host. Baroness Marguerite (Catherine Frot) sweeps into the reception room in her large manor home, her room filled with guests for her charity recital. France’s finest and mightest, who all belong to the exclusive Amadeus club which she is a part of, are all there to see her. Marguerite breezes through the room, practically gliding through her audience, escorted by her loyal manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) whilst desperately searching for her husband Georgeos (André Marcon) in the audience. Upon reaching the stage which is filled with her orchestra she turns to face them, her eyes sparkling with sheer and utter joy, her face is set and ready for that first note. Her mouth widens, forming that first note. What comes out of her mouth is unlike anything Lucien has heard before – it’s awful. Marguerite is not singing, she’s screeching, her voice is the embodiment of  nails on a chalkboard or a cat screaming. Unbeknownst to Marguerite children run under tables away from her noise, many of the man sneak into a private room away from the horror. Lucien must restrain himself from laughing, Kyrill believes he has found modernist art  and Hazel tries to hide her embarrassment from the poor woman. Finally Marguerite stops and her audience erupt into applause and admiration, flowers are thrust upon her and her talent is heralded. Lucien is bemused – she clearly does not know as her small aristocratic society has not told her – and feels compelled to write a review which is ladden in euphemism and  backhanded sentiment. Marguerite does not read into it and is filled with joy at having her talent recognised. Events start to spiral, with a public concert planned. How will Marguerite cope when she discovers the truth? 

I should point out that the above paragraph covers roughly the first 15 minutes of the film, leaving a solid 1 and 3/4 for you to discover on your own. I’ve not even discussed the role of the clown and the bearded lady! Marguerite is not always easy to watch, at times her singing or the events that it leads to are utterly mortifying. However it must be acknowledging that the mortification we feel on her behalf  is due to how well the story is told to allow us to connect with Marguerite and possible even empathise with her. It would be so much easier to have a film about a bad singer and laugh at her bad singing. Instead what we have here is so much more complex, layered and pleasurable to watch. We root for Marguerite, we hope for her and we fear for her – whether that be about a performance or comments that are about to be made about her.

Marguerite devoids herself to her craft, she spends everything on collecting props, music sheets, attending performances and supporting new talent. She has an all-consuming need to perform, which leads to unspoken clashes with her seemingly-cold and adulterous husband. Never has a film character been so in need of a hug. There’s something so child-like about Marguerite, something so amusing yet bitterly sad. It’s a true tribute to the talent of the filmmakers and the actress herself that we connect with her the way we do, encouraging her even though we easily recognise how talented she is in her chosen field.  Then somehow, throughout all this, we ultimately feel uplifted watching her journey. We all have something we pursue or like to believe we are really good at, even when we’re not At this point I’m really hoping you’re not thinking, ‘Ha! Yeah you are your film reviews”, but then Marguerite suggests that the opinion that others have about your talent should not be the one that is heralded, it should be your own and how it makes you that counts. And if how I feel about writing these reviews, and you out there hopefully reading them, is only a fraction of how singing makes Marguerite feel then I fully understand her.

It feels too overly simplistic to say this film is painful yet funny or that it is hilarious yet heartbreaking. It’s soul-baring exploration of passion. Exquisite.