Instant Family

You need to bear with this film – the first 20 minutes will either have you wanting to leave or throw something at the screen thanks to the “fostering and adoption is so important. Here, have loads and loads of facts that will make you feel super guilty but you won’t remember the minute the funny business starts.”

Okay, we get it. Having kids in the care system is horrible and if we’re childless we should all feel horrible about ourselves and immediately rush out and foster 90 bajillion kids. The things that makes this brow-beating bearable is the hilarious onscreen chemistry between Karen (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures, The Shape Of Water) and Sharon (Tig Notaro who I’d not heard of but is in a lot of American TV stuff).

Once you get over the “you should all be ashamed of yourselves” message, the film moves into more familiar comedic territory where we meet Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) who feel something is missing in their lives but, as they have left having kids a bit late, think that adoption might be the best way to get an “age appropriate” family.

The couple finally settle on mouthy teenager Lizzy (played by the fantastic Isabela Moner who previously starred with Wahlberg in Transformers 5: The Last Knight – but don’t let that put you off). The problem? She comes with baggage – emotional in that her real Mum was a crackhead and physical in that she has a younger brother and sister and they all come as a package.

Pete and Ellie decide to take the trio on and there’s your typical comedic “getting to know you moments” from temper tantrums over not having crisps for dinner to playing with the boxes and not the presents during their first “family” Christmas.

There isn’t anything hugely adventurous or standout about this film, it’s pretty standard stuff. What is does do well however is deal with the sense of displacement and loss that children feel from being moved around the foster system, how it’s difficult for them to trust anyone for fear of being let down by the system and their own biological parents, and what it’s like from the foster parent’s point of view when dealing with the “you’re not my real parents” arguments and potential loss of the kids that they have grown to love.

That being said, while I did get a bit teary-eyed at parts (you’ll want to take some tissues), the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Pete is worried that he and his white middle-class wife Ellie adopting 3 Hispanic children may be seen as white savior syndrome (we’re looking at you Madonna and Angelina Jolie) and in order to voice his fears he likens it swooping in to help the blue guys in Avatar which the Karen and Sharon assure him it’s not.

Wahlberg and Byrne are good as the put-upon parents but the standout performances are from the 3 children; Isabela Moner’s petulant teenager Izzy, walking accident waiting to happen Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and the crisp loving Lita (Julianna Gamiz) – they all really hit the mark with their various roles and are a joy to watch on screen, I’m sure they’re all destined for great things.

The supporting cast are also well chosen, and well used. The teacher in the hallway trying to stop the floor polisher is hilarious, and keep an eye out towards the end of the film for a cameo from Joan Cusack who does steal a rather emotional scene between Pete, Elie and a distraught Lizzy.

Instant Family won’t win any awards but it Is a fun film, even if it’s a bit heavy handed on the foster and adoption message.

Oh, and stay through the end credits as the end credit track is sung by the talented Moner and it’s well worth a listen.

Watch this film if you’re looking for some fun, clever comedy with an emotional touch, or if you enjoy seeing people get kicked in the nuts by an irate Mum.

The Favourite

Well, this is a bit of an odd film! Part court drama, part politics of early 1700s England, part love story and part Machiavellian tale.

The Favourite centres around the court of Queen Anne, who was queen of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702 to 1707 and Queen of England and Scotland until she died in 1714.

I have to admit, Anne is not a Queen we really covered in history class, and you don’t really see that many documentaries about her as she tends to be overshadowed by our more glamorous Queens – most notably Elizabeth I. Anne became Queen on the death of William III of Orange – the route of succession came to her thanks to James II being overthrown and Anne’s sister, Mary (married to William) having no children.

Anne cuts a very lonely figure: her husband George died in 1708 and she’s troubled by gout which leaves her bed-ridden or unable to walk most of the time, as a result much of the day-to-day running of the Court is left to her lady in waiting, Lady Marlborough – or Sarah Churchill to give her civvy name (yes, that Churchill family).

Throughout the film is difficult to tell who Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is actually serving; is she helping an ailing Queen keep hold of her throne? Is she making sure her own position at court is safe? Is she trying to give her husband fame, fortune and glory in his war in Spain? Is she doing this for the good of the country because the Queen is incompetent? Who knows as Sarah’s motivation is never overtly stated, which I think is a refreshing take on a film of this nature. Usually it’s pretty clear who you should be rooting for but the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s downtrodden cousin, muddies the waters quite a bit.

At first we’re left feeling sorry for Abigail – she was lost by her father to a fat German in a card game after all – but as the film progresses and Abigail starts playing Sarah at her own game in order to gain the Queen’s affections and ear, and as a result any sympathy originally felt starts to wear off.

The film is written in a way to make it accessible to modern audiences – there’s no flowery language but there is a prodigious amount of swearing (which makes me surprised at the 15 certificate). While using period-style dress (even if some of it is denim) it feels contemporary, and it’s shot very well, however there’s occasional use of a fish-eye lens which I found quite jarring. I think this is due to shooting on location at Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace – obviously you can’t knock walls down in order to get a wide angle shot, however these fisheye views are at odds with the way the rest of the film is shot – if they were black and white they would look almost like CCTV footage and I feel they could have been left out with no loss to the plot.

Another bug-bear I have are the captions between scenes. They contain an out-of-context quote which, while amusing, are formatted in such a way to make them almost unreadable. Maybe it’s the print designer in me but I’m afraid have the word “I” alone on its own line just really irks me (and don’t get me started on the end credit formatting – someone went rather mad with text-justification).

Two standouts for me (excluding the performances) were the music and lighting. The film is lit pretty much by natural light during the day and candles at night and it gives the film a fantastic warm quality and really makes you feel as though you are being drawn into the dark hallways with the actors or are there in the rooms of the Palace.

The music is brilliant, it’s amazing how much tension can be created with a single string of an instrument, you can almost feel the heart rates of the characters increasing with the music as the anxiety rises.

Performance wise, what I can say? Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is pathetic and yet harsh, needy and yet aloof and to see her towards the end of the film as an almost broken and still powerful queen was a masterful performance.

Rachel Weisz perfectly balances the role of master and servant – it’s hard to tell who is the real Queen sometimes and Emma Stone’s Abigail oozes naivety at first but you can see that there’s always something going on behind those eyes and I’m pleased to say her English accent holds up pretty well too.

I gave this film 7 out of 10. While it is good, I felt we could have seen a little more of Queen Anne – firstly because Colman is a fantastic actress and secondly because we could have done with a bit more background without me having to spend a few hours reading up on her – was she really useless and just a puppet? Was she just in the complete thrall of her lover(s)? Also, a point was docked for the crappy formatting of the intertitles and credits – call me petty but sometimes it’s the only way people learn!

I usually would give you a piece of “watch this when…” advice at this point however I think the following warning is in order: Don’t watch this film with your Granny or parents unless they’re super cool, there’s far too much lady sexy times and C-words if they’re not and you’ll just end up feeling rather awkward and uncomfortable!

Can You Ever Forgive Me

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, a barely functioning alcoholic whose life starts to go out of control when she loses her job.

Israel is a far from sympathetic character, she’s rude to her colleagues which is why she lost her job, rude to her literary agent which is why she can’t get any work, and was horrible to her ex-partner which is why she is alone and friendless.

Running off the back of a couple of marginally well-received biographies (“I was on the New York Times best seller list, surely that has to count for something?” she moans at her agent) Israel is sure that her new idea of an autobiography on vaudeville actress Fanny Brice is the solution to all her woes. The problem is, this is the early 1990s and no one in interested in biographies, let alone Fanny Brice.

Undaunted, Israel starts her research and it’s while looking through books in a library she comes across some personal letters from Brice herself tucked into the back of one of the books. Israel decides to keep the letters – presumably because she thinks they will add value to her book if she has some personal correspondence that no-one else has – and this sets her on a slippery path to becoming one of the most prolific letter forgers of the 20th Century – with some of her forgeries still in circulation as the real thing even today.

With this being a Melissa McCarthy film, you might think that this is a light-hearted caper movie along the lines of Identity Thief – it’s not. It’s a hard-hitting, no-holds barred look at a very unlikeable character who is horrible to those around her and whose only true friend – her cat Jersey – doesn’t really like her either.

Even by the end of the film, you really don’t feel sorry for Israel’s character – I personally thought that she should have got a harsher sentence considering the lack of remorse she showed over her crimes – she was proud of the fact she was so good at her forging “job” but being banned from almost every library in the US meant she couldn’t carry on her trade as either master forger or serious biographer.

The film is, obviously, centred around Israel but there is quite a strong supporting cast. The excellent Jane Curtin stars as Israel’s put-upon agent; Dolly Wells as Anna, a bookstore owner who starts off as one of Israel’s marks but a friendship starts to bloom in a “will they, won’t they” sort of way which is quite sweet; and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock (with a Big Cock – his catchphrase, I don’t know from personal experience) a fellow drunkard who Israel is able to tolerate presumably because it’s a novelty to find someone more miserable and untruthful than herself.

Richard E. Grant’s portrayal of Hock has garnered him several award nominations (Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild no less) and while it was a good performance (I did shed a tear in the last scene he shared with McCartney’s Israel), I was left thinking it was merely a very toned-down version of Withnail (of Withnail & I). There’s the excessive drinking, lewdness and drug taking – in fact the only difference is that you can understand what he’s saying in this film where as he’s a bit too off his face and ranty in Withnail & I.

That being said, while it’s not a new performance from Grant, it is a good one and the on-screen chemistry between Hock and Israel is excellent. Apparently, the role of Israel was originally to be played by Julianne Moore and I’m glad she dropped out. While not an exact look-a-like, McCarthy encompasses the essence of the character – essentially a nasty drunk woman – and I think Moore would have been far too glamorous for the role.

While I don’t think it’s necessarily an Oscar winning performance, it was nice to see McCarthy in a serious role where she’s actually showing her acting ability rather than just being a shouty angry woman. That being said, I’m afraid that I will forever hold McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live’s Sean Spicer in my heart as her best role – it’s a shame he left the White House as quickly as he did – imagine the fun Melissa could have had with him!

Watch this film if you’re looking for some semi-factual cinema and are feeling a bit tetchy (bring a hanky for use towards the end of the film though).

This film has interested me in the subject matter that much I have ordered Lee Israel’s autobiography from Amazon – if you feel like doing the same then you can choose one of the options below. It won’t cost you any extra but I’ll get a small affiliate commission.

Vice

It’s usually hard to get the balance right in films about politics; there are a lot of facts that you need to get across to the public, situations that need to be covered without the necessary time for a full backstory and, more often than not, a large cast of characters that need to be portrayed fairly and accurately.

When you think of political films, you might think of Michael Moore’s documentaries that rely on his personality to get the facts across or perhaps All The President’s Men which is quite a heavy-going film and relies heavily on the casting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman to keep audiences engaged. When I first saw the trailer for Vice, I was intrigued as I wondered how they would manage to tell the story of Vice President Dick Cheney when the cast of surrounding characters (George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld etc.) are so well known and Cheney was more of the quiet man in the background.

Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney, part of American Politics “Royal Family”. Cheney’s life started out on a rocky path after being kicked out of Yale for partying too hard, receiving two DUIs in quick succession and generally going off the rails. It took a stern talking to from then girlfriend (and later wife) Lynne to get him back on the straight and narrow and out of his dead-end job as a powerline fitter and into the world of politics.

What I found surprising was the sheer length of time Cheney had been involved in politics in and around the White House. I had assumed that he’d just been brought in to George W. Bush’s team because of this business experience and Bush’s fondness for cow-towing to big industry. It turns out that Cheney’s start in politics dates right the way back to the Nixon administration (and if that doesn’t speak volumes then I don’t know what will!)

Far from being a dry retelling of his rise to immense power, this story is an engaging and often amusing look and the inner workings of the American political system and how it can be manipulated if someone wants to abuse that system and gain ultimate power.

Bale, to me, is one of those performers who is either excellent (The Machinist for example) or terrible (Terminator Salvation) and I’m happy to report that he’s outstanding in his portrayal of Cheney – both in terms of physicality and his voice. Also outstanding are Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne who is as ambitious as Dick (if not more so) and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld and all 3 deserve Oscar nominations for their performances. If there’s one weak link in the Cheney (ha!) that’s got to be Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.

Rockwell just doesn’t seem to capture the mannerisms of Bush, the only physical nod to him is the hairstyle and he doesn’t even attempt to imitate Bush’s way of speaking – I have to wonder why he was chosen for this part when everyone else is so very close to the characters they are portraying and it’s just like he’s showed up and gone “Oh, okay, I can be myself then”.

The story is weaved together through a series of important events – Nixon resigning, Ford losing the election, Regan getting elected, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq – and these are explained and narrated by an unnamed man who says that he’s “sort of related to Cheney but I’ll explain that later”.

If you’re not American, you don’t need to worry that you won’t understand the political goings on as our narrator explains the complex points with the incredulity that you’ll feel yourself once you realise what Cheney and his cohorts did once he got into the White House.

He’s been described as “The most powerful Vice President in history” and, if the events of this film are as they are portrayed, I’d go even further to say he’s probably the most powerful American politician in history.

I’d like to think that everything that Cheney did was for the good of the people however this film does make me question his motivations – especially given his links to Halliburton. Perhaps a revisiting of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” is in order after viewing this.

I’ve given this film 9/10 and it’s certainly well deserved. It may even have gotten a 10 if Sam Rockwell hadn’t let the side down and if Steve Carell’s Rumsfeld had recreated the “Known Unknown” speech.

Watch this film if you’re fed up of all of the arguments over Brexit and want to realise how lucky we are in the UK to have the political system we do.

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

I like Queen. I wouldn’t say I’m an avid fan but when my parents bought me my first CD player back in around 1992 the first CD album I bought was Queen’s Greatest Hits Vol 2. I also wouldn’t say that I’m really familiar with the Queen backstory but I have seen a few documentaries on Freddie Mercury and Live Aid so I was interested to see what the film’s take on it was and I have to say I was quite disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, Rami Malek is very good as Freddie Mercury and the supporting cast are also good (side note: did anyone else think that Joseph Mazzello who plays John Deacon looks a bit like a young Lee Mack? No? Just me then) but there’s no real substance to the film and it really feels like a two hour advert for Queen’s music and, by extension, the We Will Rock You musical.

The story starts with Freddie Mercury meeting up with Roger Taylor and Brian May literally seconds after their lead singer left which didn’t happen (read May’s account of how they met here) and from this point on the story lurches from liberty to liberty mashing together events that could never had co-existed at the same time for the sake of artistic licence.

Parts of the story that would have been truly interesting such as Mercury’s descent into his drug-fulled hedonistic lifestyle, the real relationship between “super-villain” Paul Prenter and Mercury (the film really twists the timeline about with this aspect of the story) and the real relationship between Mercury and the put-upon Mary Austin (it took him 5 months to ask her out, not a few days) are glossed over or are so far removed from truth that you wonder why they are included at all.

I know that films have to cram in a lot in a limited time frame but given that they used 20 minutes of the film for the Live Aid recreation I think this could have been cut down to allow for more story and place things in the proper order that they actually happened – I mean that’s not too much to ask is it? Surely a film that’s about real people and real events should be told in a relatively truthful manner or have a whacking great big disclaimer at the start. For example, the band didn’t break up in 1983 when Freddie signed the solo deal – in fact they released an album in 1984, Freddie didn’t find out he was HIV positive until well after Live Aid took place (some put it at least 2 years after) and boyfriend Jim was a hairdresser not a waiter – and these are just some minor discrepancies that I’ve highlighted.

While the Live Aid portion of the show is great, unless you have seen the original version (which I am assuming most people under 40 won’t have) then it won’t really mean anything to you. Afterwards I thought given how accurate the recreation was it would have been nice to cut between the real and recreated version to show Mercury’s personality and the accuracy of Malek’s performance.

Speaking of Malek’s performance, I found it rather flat. While not a hugely expressive character when off stage, Mercury did show emotion in his voice (see the interview below) but Malek shows very little inflection and it’s all quite on one level – almost emotionless really which I don’t think does Mercury justice.

Additionally, in the credits all songs are listed as being performed by Queen so I basically spent 2 hours of my life watching Lip Sync Battle. In fact I might as well have watched Paul Rudd AKA Ant-Man do a Freddie Mercury impression… oh, hang on… by the power of the internet I bring you Paul Rudd singing Queen in a Lip Sync Battle!

When you consider that Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspon  recreated all of Johnny Cash’s and June Carter’s songs for Walk The Line that’s what you call a proper biopic and sort of what I was expecting – after all so much was made of choosing Remi Malek after Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out/was dropped that I guess I expected a “full Mercury” performance.

Considering that the film took almost 10 years to make I’m surprised that it turned out the way it did – of course Brian May and Roger Taylor came out looking good (they were executive producers after all) and John Deacon gets some credit for the creative input he had into Queen’s hits I think it does Freddie a bit of a disservice. While a “warts and all” film may not be to everyones taste whitewashing over the majority of his behaviour doesn’t really tell us the man he was, only the view that others want to present.

Overall, I think the film was a huge missed opportunity that didn’t really take itself seriously I mean, Mike Myers’ Ray Foster (another character that didn’t exist) saying that Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t any good? You’re seriously going to go there?

The directing was lazy and by-the-book but I guess that’s bound to happen when the director (Bryan Singer) goes AWOL and gets fired half-way through filming (Dexter Fletcher of “Press Gang” fame had to finish the film but doesn’t seem to get any credit anywhere)

The best scene in the film was a recreation of an actual piece of film so didn’t really need any direction and the “clever’ zoom under the piano and through Freddie’s legs to focus on May’s guitar solo was super-contrived (Was this Singer or Fletcher? We’ll have to wait for the Blu-Ray extras folks!) but about the only original aspect of the piece. The one shining light were the production values, they really captured the tone of the time from the costumes and hair to the kitsch gaudiness of Mercury’s home and that was the one aspect of the film I did admire.

Oh, and one final gripe (among the many I haven’t even covered): are you seriously trying to tell me that no one called in to pledge any money until Queen went on the stage as the film hints at? There were 15 acts before Queen took to the stage including Dire Straits, Sade and Sting And Phil Collins and not one of those could raise one red cent? (Insert massive raspberry noise here).

So, my final verdict: Lazy, Lying and Listless – it’s more like one of those cheap movies they put out on the Hallmark Channel or True Movies rather than a “Hollywood Blockbuster”.

Should you watch this film? If it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and you have a basket of ironing to do it will provide an adequate backdrop but I wouldn’t go out of your way to watch it – especially if you’re a Queen fan as I think you’ll get quite annoyed with the way the story’s laid out.

My only hope is that the upcoming Elton John biopic “Rocketman” doesn’t fall foul of the same lack of integrity – but who knows as it’s directed by none other than a certain Dexter Fletcher (small world, eh?) however there’s one main difference in that the star – Taron Egerton – actually sings all of the musical numbers in the film himself.

Now, that’s a proper musical biopic I want to see.

Added bonus: There’s a running joke through Bohemian Rhapsody about Roger Taylor’s song “I’m in love with my car” I have to say it’s truly awful and no wonder they take the piss out of it

Do you agree with me? Let me know in the comments what you thought of the film.

A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born is the tale of musician Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), an artist who’s seen better days, and Ally (Lady Gaga) a shy waitress who is in need of some self-belief (unless she’s singing in a drag bar then she’s a musical harlot).

Maine’s search for post-concert booze sees him rock up (rock, geddit?!) at a random bar just in time to catch Ally sing and he’s bowled over by her performance – well, I’m assuming he was wowed by her voice as he was so shit-faced I doubt he could have translated the song from French in order to understand the words. They spend the rest of the night together talking about music, punching cops – you know, a standard night with a total stranger – and a bond begins to form over a bag of frozen peas.

Ally confesses that she writes her own songs but won’t sing them as she’s been knocked back too many times, just before singing one of the songs she’s written. Despite the hypocrisy, this scene is really touching and it feels that the emotion of the scene was driven very much by Lady Gaga’s own experiences of the music industry – and there-in lies one of the main problems with the film: I felt as though we were watching a dramatisation of Gaga’s career from being a “serious” musician to moving into pop as that’s what sells.

It’s also unclear what Maine’s role is in all of this. I got the impression he was supposed to be some washed-up musician that takes Ally under his wing and gets jealous of her success but over the course of the film he’s touring and has songs on a juke box so he’s very much in the public eye still – and that’s another flaw in the film: Ally asks him why he’s jealous but I don’t think he is, he just wants her to avoid the mistakes he’s made and stay true to her music. The thing is she is kind of staying true to it, she knows the popular stuff sells and seems to be having fun doing it so what’s the harm? I was hoping to see her go full-blown diva which would have explained a lot of the tension between Jackson and Ally but that never really came across.

The script is very loosely written, it feels as though most of the film was improvised and that the only bits that were scripted were the concert scenes and that was purely because they filmed at real concerts so only had limited time. I’m not sure about the directing either – it’s not bad for a directorial debut (it’s Cooper’s first directing gig) but there’s just something missing that doesn’t allow the full emotions of the characters to come across and as a result I was left not really feeling for either of them.

Cooper plays a boozed up Maine very well, the scene that takes place at the Grammy Awards is certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination, and even though there is eventually some backstory about why he drinks and takes drugs it happens so late on in the film I don’t really care any more (and its just serves to set something up later rather than being proper exposition).

Lady Gaga is excellent as Ally, in fact I can’t think of anyone else who could have played the role (although apparently Beyonce was linked to the script at one point), and she will certainly be a strong contender for Best Actress at all the major awards.

I haven’t seen the 1970’s version of A Star Is Born (or the 1950’s or the 1930’s – yes this is like the 4th version) so I don’t have anything to directly compare this version to (although I did watch the trailer and was completely fascinated by Barbara Streisand’s perm) but I was left feeling a little flat – as was the rest of the audience at our preview screening. I’ve been to films where they’ve clapped at the end and cheered but never had I heard an entire audience audibly go “Oh…..” at the end of a film – until now.

I can see why people are raving about it –  I think that’s only because there’s not been another film of this type released (it feels like it’s all been Superheroes) but it’s a shame it couldn’t have gone that little step further to stop me feeling rather deflated at the end.

Fair warning: There’s alcohol and drug abuse, references to suicide, flashing lights and a flash of a naked Gaga so it’s certainly not suitable for everyone.

Watch this if you’d like something that’s not a superhero movie and want to punish your boyfriend for making you watch Ant-Man And The Wasp

To cheer you up after seeing this, check out Bab’s hair