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Non-Review Review: Stardust (2020)

Stardust is not just a terrible movie, it often feels like a very direct insult to its subject.

To some extent, Stardust was inevitable. The commercial and awards success of Bohemian Rhapsody had cemented the musical biopic as an organic extension of the jukebox music genre that had enjoyed popular success with Mamma Mia and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Given that the logical extension had been to move from a Freddie-Mercury-centric biopic to an Elton-John-centric biopic with Rocketman, it seemed that iconic British musical artists from the seventies were ripe for this sort of treatment.

“But the film is a saddening bore.
For she’s lived it ten times or more.
She could spit in the eyes of fools.
As they ask her to focus on…”

David Bowie loomed large in that line-up, so a Bowie biopic seemed the next logical step. Of course, there are two fundamental problems with Stardust. The first is one of genre. Whether fairly or not, the musical biopic has a certain structure and rhythm to it. This was the case with the early iterations of the genre like Ray and Walk the Line, and it was spoofed mercilessly with Walk Hard. That formula is evident in Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, unironically reiterated. That formula has its uses, but David Bowie was an artist who defied those sorts of tropes and beats.

However, the second fundamental issue with Stardust is particular to the movie. A large part of the appeal of musical biopics is the soundtrack, with the plot often feeling like a set of hooks on which the movie might hang iconic and beloved songs. The soundtrack album is a huge part of the commercial appeal of these projects. Rocketman arguably pushed this idea to its extreme by embracing the cinematic language of the musical, but it was there in Walk the Line and Bohemian Rhapsody.

“Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth.
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then cigarette.
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget.”

With that in mind, it is notable that Stardust is effectively a jukebox musical biography without any jukebox music. The Bowie estate declined to license Bowie’s music for the film, which should have been enough to stop the project dead or at least require a major rethink of the approach to it. Without a killer Bowie soundtrack, trying to emulate Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman would be a fool’s errand. There is probably a way to tell the story of David Bowie’s life without including his music, but a formulaic musical biopic is not it.

One almost has to admire the stubbornness in committing to a format almost wholly reliant on a soundtrack that is legally unavailable to the film in question. Almost.

“Making love with his ego,
Ziggy sucked up into his mind,
Like a leper messiah.”

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My 12 for ’18: “I, Tonya” and the Post-Truth Biopic

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number two.

One of the interesting things about being an Irish film critic, as opposed to an American film critic, is that it does make the end-of-year top tens rather… jumbled.

Piracy and social media have done a lot to close the gap between cinematic releases in peak blockbuster season. Movies like Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Avengers: Infinity War tend to be released day-and-date around the world in an effort to prevent bootleg copies and spoilers cutting into those profit margins. The conversation about such films tends to be instantaneous or nigh-instantaneous, as it is with even off-season blockbusters like Mary Poppins Returns or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In contrast, awards fare is still staggered. The “big” and “populist” awards fare films tend to synchronise releases across the globe; A Star is Born, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, Widows. However, the smaller and more eccentric films end up staggered across the New Year. So although I have seen If Beale Street Could Talk, ViceStan and Ollie and The Favourite, they are not eligible for this end of year countdown.

In contrast, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and I, Tonya both make the countdown of my favourite releases of 2018, despite the fact that the bulk of the conversation around them (and the bulk of their cultural context) was anchored in 2017. It is something that seems strange, even as I go through my end of year list, feeling like I’ve arrived late enough to the party that I might as well just order breakfast.

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Non-Review Review: Noble

Christina Noble has done a lot of good in the world. She has helped 700,000 street children in Vietnam and Mongolia. She has devoted her life to charity pursuits. Travelling to Ho Chi Minh City in 1989, she made it her mission to help those who could not help themselves. She has done a phenomenal job of raising awareness and of improving the standard and quality of life of children who would otherwise be neglected or exploited. She is affectionately known as “Mama Tina” by the children she helps.

There is probably a great movie to be made about the life and times of Christina Noble. Sadly, Noble is not it.

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Non-Review Review: Crazy Heart

We all know the story. Artists are apparently particularly self-destructive, especially those who write country and western songs. Crazy Heart isn’t exactly a boldly original film by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, it’s typically predictable up until the end – but it does have a thing or two working in its favour, which elevates it just a bit above these almost conventional films. The first is a rather endearing soundtrack which is – in many ways – better written than the film itself. The second is Jeff Bridges.

Jeff Bridges plays your heartstrings...

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Non-Review Review: W.

Oliver Stone famously rushed just about every aspect of this production in order to get it into cinemas before last year’s November election. Does that affect the movie? It does and it doesn’t. It doesn’t in that Stone seems to have a clear image of the President in his head and it’s perfectly captured on screen. It does affect the movie in that Stone has to choose an arbitrary cutoff point for his movie, since he can’t end it with the end of Bush’s presidency. So he chooses the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 to serve as the film’s ending. That point arguably suits the central thesis of Stone’s psychological profile of the man, butit also serves to make that thesis seem heavy-handed or forced. The other side of that coin is that I doubt the Stone would have been able to market and sell the film for a few years after the end of the Bush administration, and the fact that so vintage a diretcor as Stone can still make such a raw and energetic film is a testament to his abilities (that some of us may have doubted after World Trade Centre and Alexander).

bush

Misunderestimate at your peril...

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