Reviews Round-up: The BFG, Chevalier, Born to be Blue, Ming of Harlem

Steven Spielberg's take on the Roald Dahl classic, plus masculine competition from Rachel Tsangari and the life of Chet Baker

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The Independent Culture

The BFG (3D)

★★★☆☆

Dir: Steven Spielberg, 115 mins, starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader

It is easy to see why Steven Spielberg might identify closely with Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant. This 24ft tall “runt” specialises in “blowing dreams,” which is what Spielberg himself has been doing over the 40 years of his filmmaking career.

At certain moments, The BFG is utterly enchanting but it is missing one key ingredient possessed by all of Spielberg’s best films. That is a decent storyline that can sustain a full-length feature film. Dahl’s much loved 1982 children’s book may have sold millions of copies but its plot is as whimsical and insubstantial as the reveries that the BFG keeps in jars and transports into the bedrooms of sleeping children.

This is a film of extraordinary visual richness but Spielberg is forced to rely far too heavily on the production design, cinematography, music and special effects because the narrative itself just doesn’t cut it.

The BFG is arguably the most British film that Spielberg has ever made (although several of his previous movies have been based on books by British authors, JG Ballard, Michael Morpurgo and HG Wells among them). It offers a quaint and very quirky vision of Britishness. The film’s opening scenes have a Dickensian feel.

We see the Thames by moonlight. It’s the witching hour, 3am, somewhere in central London, and, in the orphanage dormitory, 10-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) can’t sleep.  “You’re bladdered, the lot of you,” she yells at some drunken spivs who are making a racket on the cobbled streets below.

This is when the BFG (Mark Rylance) glides into sight for the first time. He is taller than the lamp posts and has an uncanny ability to melt into the shadows whenever a passer-by looks likely to spot him. With his sideburns, waistcoat, rustic breeches and west country accent, he looks like one of the Wurzels. Instead of cider, he drinks frobscottle. The bubbles of this fizzy green liquid go down instead of up. It makes him blissfully happy to gulp it down and then let off enormous farts.

When the BFG whisks Sophie away to his home in Giant’s Country, Spielberg is able to introduce her (and the audience) to the giant’s lair. It is exactly as you would hope a sorcerer’s den to be - crammed to bursting with jars, pulleys, potions, bric a brac and rotting vegetables. There’s a wonderful rapport between Barnhill’s Sophie and Rylance’s giant. She is very bossy. He has a mournful, gentle demeanour and uses language in an eccentric way, cracking neologisms and mangling his syntax.

BFG: Mark and Ruby

Rylance’s performance is as striking as the Oscar-winning one he gave for Spielberg last year in Bridge Of Spies.  He knows just how to squeeze out the humour in a line but also how to elicit the pathos. He has a knack of pausing and slowing down his delivery so that we wait on his words.

From its enrapturing early scenes, the film slowly begins to stall. The BFG may be a giant in human terms but he is considered very puny by the other denizens of giant country, who bully and mock him relentlessly. Led by the very uncouth Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement from Flight Of The Conchords), they’re an unpleasant bunch of troglodytes with dirty feet and hairy noses who would very much like to eat Sophie. The film, though, doesn’t make any convincing argument as to why these giants need to be turfed out of their own homeland.

Spielberg doesn’t really do bawdy humour or vulgarity. When Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) drinks some frobscottle and begins to fart at a tea party with the BFG, the scene is therefore far less uproarious than you might expect it to be.

Nothing very much here seems to be at stake. Sophie isn’t on a desperate quest for her mother (like the robot kid in Spielberg’s AI) or returning home like the alien in ET. There’s no real emotional urgency. That’s why The BFG is ultimately such an anticlimax in spite of the ingenuity and formidable craftsmanship behind it.

 

Born To Be Blue (15)

★★★★☆

Dir: Robert Budreau, 98 mins, starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie

Posterity offers two wildly contrasting images of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. This partially fictionalised biopic from Canadian writer-director Robert Budreau does justice to both of them. On the one hand, there is Baker as “the James Dean of jazz”, moody, charismatic and with the tousled hair and film-star good looks.

Then there’s Baker the emaciated junkie, his teeth missing, his cheeks shrunken and the patience of his friends fast evaporating. Ethan Hawke gives an engaging, soulful and deeply layered performance as the troubled musician who can seem like a sweet-natured kid one moment and a self-pitying monster the next.

Baker here is first encountered in the mid-1960s, in an Italian jail and hallucinating about gigantic spiders coming out of his trumpet. He’s let out of prison because a Hollywood director wants to make a movie about his life. Budreau shows scenes from this film within a film. The effect is intended to be disorienting: we are seeing Hawke playing Baker playing himself. To add to the confusion further, Carmen Ejogo plays Jane, a (fictional) actress in the movie who becomes Baker’s girlfriend and de facto nurse.

Certain scenes are true to life. Baker really was very badly beaten up and had his teeth knocked out – something that made it agonising for him to play, even after elaborate dental work. Baker is shown trying to blow his trumpet although his gums are bleeding and he is in evident pain.

“Trouble is good for you,” seems to be Baker’s mantra. At times, the film rehearses the old cliché of the tortured, suffering artist, embracing his own degradation as a badge of authenticity. The main focus here is on Baker’s relationship with Jane and his attempts to clean himself up. They live in her camper van beside the beach. The drama hinges on whether his love for her will outweigh his addictions and self-destructiveness.

By the mid-Sixties, jazz is said to be dying. Bob Dylan has gone “electric” and jazz musicians are no longer as revered as they had been in the 1950s. Nonetheless, Baker’s commitment to his craft hasn’t wavered. He yearns to play Birdland in New York and to earn the respect of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (who appears to regard him as a white dilettante.)

The film is an interpretation of Baker’s life, a riff on it, that isn’t bound by the usual constraints of biopics. Instead of slavishly taking us from cradle to grave, Budreau opts for a more impressionistic approach. There is plenty of music and performance – and between times, biographical episodes are sketched in.

We see Baker and Jane visiting his parents on a farm in the midwest. His father, a failed musician, is brutal with him, accusing him of shaming the family. Hawke, though, is able to convince us of Baker’s talent – and of his charm, even when his behaviour is at its most erratic. He is convincing, too, when he sings, performing the songs with such heartfelt intensity that we scarcely notice when he is off key.

 

Chevalier (18)

★★★★☆

Dir: Athina Rachel Tsangari, 105 mins, starring: Panos Koronis, Efthymis Papadimitriou, Giorgos Pyrpassopoulos, Sakis Rouvas

There is a wry old British comedy called School For Scoundrels, based on Stephen Potter’s writing and starring Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael, about “one-upmanship”. The two male leads desperately try to out-do each other. The six characters in this invigorating Greek-made art house comedy-drama are engaged in a similar battle. They’re affluent, middle-class types, aboard an expensive yacht on what should be an enjoyable holiday. The mood, though, turns very tense indeed when they start a competition to decide who is the “best in general”.

Tsangari’s storytelling style is very dry and deadpan – and that only adds to the absurdist humour. The six men are capable of being very nasty indeed to each other. “Your syntax is shit and your penis is very small,” is a typical insult.

They measure everything about each other, from posture to shoes to what they look like sleeping, how long they can hold their breath and whether or not they can sustain an erection. At one stage, they race to put up some shelves. The competition is inherently pointless (as one man hisses at a rival: “Even if you win, it doesn’t mean you’re the best in general.”)

The film is satirising aspiration, snobbery and the way that competition seeps into utterly trivial areas of its characters’ lives. What makes it unsettling is the sense that, maybe, the film isn’t so far-fetched after all. Tsangari is laying bare the conceit and machismo of her male protagonists. They can’t even have a conversation or enjoy a meal together without it turning into a ferociously competitive experience.

 

Ming Of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air (U)

★★★☆☆

Dir: Phillip Warnell, 71 mins, featuring: Antoine Yates, Rajiv, Brianna, Johnny Jarrett-Graham, Willow Samuel, Mabel Stark

This is a far cooler and more detached film than might be expected from its subject matter. It’s a documentary telling the jaw-dropping story of a New Yorker called Antoine Yates who kept a tiger and an alligator in an apartment in Harlem. The existence of these unlikely flatmates became public knowledge after the tiger turned on Yates. 

Rather than concentrate on the sensationalist elements of the story, director Warnell treats it as if it is an academic case study about the relationship between humans and animals. There are some intriguing insights about what the tiger ate (a mix of meat and chicken, depending on supermarket prices).

The director also has an eye for an incongruous and poetic image. The footage of a fully grown tiger wandering around a reconstruction of the apartment, snuggling up on a bed or strolling through a bathroom, is fascinating precisely because it is so unexpected.

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