Review Round-up – Dumbo, Lords of Chaos, Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

This week, Disney is dominant in cinemas yet again with another of its live-action updates of previous animated classics. Meanwhile, there’s a very colourful selection of counter-programming in play, including a charming British documentary and a seriously rough musical biopic. Here are my thoughts on the week’s best and worst releases…

 

** FILM OF THE WEEK **
Poster for 2019 documentary Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

I knew next to nothing about Frank Sidebottom, or the man behind the head Chris Sievey, before I sat down to watch Being Frank. In fact, the closest I had previously got to experiencing Sidebottom was through the bizarre not-quite-biopic Frank, in which Michael Fassbender played a Sidebottom-esque frontman. Director Steve Sullivan makes the most of great access to Sievey’s family to tell his story in a way that is funny, but also endlessly charming and very poignant indeed.

With the help of family members and an enviable array of comedy talking heads, Being Frank traces Sievey’s remarkable journey from being an industrious singer-songwriter without much success to achieving cult fame by putting an enormous papier-mâché head over his own. Like any businessman or performer, Sievey smelled what worked and threw his energy into Frank. The documentary, though, is careful to also show the darker sides of what it calls “Frankomania”, in which Sievey was effectively trapped in a persona he created as a side joke.

Being Frank focuses heavily on the duality of Sievey and the double-edged sword that was Frank and the fame the character afforded him. It gets across the genuine love and affection that the UK had for the Sidebottom character, as well as the prodigious talent of the man behind him. The emotional poignancy hits hard but, as Sievey would no doubt have wanted, there’s always enough madness to keep things light.

VERDICT: Being Frank is an engaging and heartfelt documentary about a uniquely British phenomenon. Helmed with real love and affection, it’s a charming tale of frenetic comedy and wacky imagination – exactly what Sievey himself was known for.

(Dir: Steve Sullivan, 101 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]

 

Poster for 2019 Disney adventure Dumbo

Dumbo

There is understandable cynicism around the current wave of Disney live-action remakes, but there was some excitement when Tim Burton was announced as the director for Dumbo. As a piece of directorial casting, it made perfect sense. The resulting film is, bizarrely, not immediately identifiable as a Burton work. Many of the director’s edges have been smoothed off, but it remains an entertaining confection.

The original hour-long animation has been bulked out with a selection of human characters, led by Colin Farrell as a First World War vet and circus performer who finds himself demoted to caring for the elephants when he returns to Danny DeVito‘s big top. When the circus gains a flying elephant, the attention of Michael Keaton‘s entertainment supremo is piqued.

There’s an oddness to Dumbo given its tale of corporate takeover has obvious analogues in the real world, but it’s a passable and entertaining blockbuster helped over the line by the adorable CGI beast at its centre. It’s a little bit lacking in excitement and innovation, but as an enjoyable family adventure it works well enough that it will keep the Disney remake train rolling.

VERDICT: It might lack its director’s most entertaining hallmarks and suffer in comparison to some of Disney’s more exciting recent successes, but Dumbo is a sweet-natured family tale with a big heart and some killer flight sequences.

(Dir: Tim Burton, 112 mins, Cert: PG) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]

 

Poster for 2019 music biopic Lords of Chaos

Lords of Chaos

I knew even less about the 1990s European black metal scene than I did about Frank Sidebottom when I took my seat for Jonas Åkerlund‘s Lords of Chaos. It tells the true story of the notorious group Mayhem, who were linked to church arson attacks and several murders in the press during that period. With graphic violence, including the most horrifying suicide scene I have ever seen on the big screen, and an uncompromising darkness, it’s a tough watch.

Given that rough subject matter, though, what’s most impressive about Lords of Chaos is how much intensity it creates by intermingling very disparate tones. There are moments of almost Spinal Tap comedy, largely due to Rory Culkin‘s excellent work as the out-of-his-depth band leader Euronymous, that undercut the hyper-serious personas put forward by these young men. They want to be seen as the biggest and the baddest, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get there.

It’s in this darkness that Lords of Chaos lives, focusing on desensitised youth looking for meaning in their existence. Åkerlund understands the metal scene – he’s a musician himself – but he’s not afraid to skewer these characters for their absurd views, making it all the more tragic when those absurd views begin to have potent consequences in the real world.

VERDICT: With troubling levels of violence and a bizarre, quasi-comedic tone, Lords of Chaos is certainly not a film that will work for everyone. However, it’s a compelling journey into the dark heart of performative masculinity that has plenty to say about what happens when those attitudes are allowed to exacerbate the worst aspects of humanity.

(Dir: Jonas Åkerlund, 117 mins, Cert: 18) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]

 

Poster for 2019 biopic At Eternity's Gate

At Eternity’s Gate

There were plenty of people scratching their heads and rushing to IMDb when Willem Dafoe was announced as part of the Best Actor shortlist at this year’s Oscars. The film for which he was nominated, At Eternity’s Gate, lacked the buzz of some other contenders. But now, the movie has made its way to cinemas, featuring Dafoe’s portrayal of the painter Vincent Van Gogh during the final few years of his life.

This is an unusual film from director Julian Schnabel, which seems to have a rather inflated sense of its own importance. The title perhaps gives a hint towards the obnoxious, pretentious tone of the omnipresent voiceover delivered by Dafoe who, while delivering a committed turn, is never given the material to chew on. This isn’t a deeper take on Van Gogh, but it is one that is ponderous and certain that it has something meaningful to say – despite the fact it arguably doesn’t.

Supporting characters flit in and out of the narrative without ever having chance to make an impact, while it’s only the natural hues of Benoît Delhomme’s beautiful cinematography that makes the movie watchable at all. You should just go and watch the Van Gogh episode of Doctor Who instead.

VERDICT: Willem Dafoe tries his best in At Eternity’s Gate, but this is not a movie that ever justifies its hefty tone and over-inflated running time. It’s a ponderous, pretentious journey through Van Gogh’s later life that is never able to explain why he’s an important figure.

(Dir: Julian Schnabel, 111 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]

 

Poster for 2019 crime thriller Out of Blue

Out of Blue

Carol Morley is not a filmmaker who produces easy cinema. Her movies are loose and open-ended, with multiple interpretations available to every viewer. Crime thriller Out of Blue is entirely in keeping with her style, crafting an adaptation of the Martin Amis novel Night Train that keeps its audience guessing with its mixture of hard-boiled detective story and head-scrambling, scientific musing.

The former element of the narrative works a lot better than the second. Patricia Clarkson is excellent as the detective investigating the mysterious homicide of a brilliant young astrophysicist. The crime immediately awakens something within her that cuts through her long-held professionalism and leads her mental state to unravel. Narrative twists and turns come thick and fast, but are occasionally interrupted by slightly awkward cosmic elements that don’t quite sit right.

Even amidst its frequent languors, there’s something enthralling and dreamlike about this woozy film, which casts an unusual spell as it winds towards a conclusion. Clarkson proves to be a very worthy anchor point around which the madness can orbit and there are some very solid supporting performances. Special praise must go to James Caan, who really makes the most of his small part in things.

VERDICT: Fans of Carol Morley’s previous work will be equally spellbound by Out of Blue, which sees a weary and complex Patricia Clarkson investigate a murder that inevitably has more behind it than is initially suggested. The cosmic elements often don’t work, but this is a tapestry of real filmmaking flair.

(Dir: Carol Morley, 109 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]

 

Poster for 2019 British comedy Eaten By Lions

Eaten By Lions

Nothing marks a film out as properly British more than a title cribbed from a Sunday Sport front page that’s crucial to the narrative setup. What follows is a fun comedy odyssey that takes a pair of half-siblings (Tomb Raider actor Antonio Aakeel and comedian Jack Carroll) from their home to Blackpool in search of one of their biological parents. They encounter a great selection of British comedy actors along the way.

Director and co-writer Jason Wingard‘s movie is a love letter to British diversity in a way that is exceptionally welcome and warm given the current political situation over here. Carroll is a particular standout in terms of laughs and, perhaps surprisingly, drama too, while rising comic star Asim Chaudhry continues to develop his slightly tragic manchild shtick.

The movie is on solid ground in its opening stage, but slightly falls apart in the third act as the comedy gives way to narrative complexity. Eaten By Lions slightly buckles under the weight of its muddled storytelling, but it has enough warmth and wry humour to get past all of that and become something that’s a very satisfying treat indeed.

VERDICT: In a week that didn’t include the brilliant Being Frank, this would have been a dead cert for the most charming Britflick of the week. It does, however, stand out as a delightful portrait of Britain as it is today – diverse, charming and a little tacky in the best possible way.

(Dir: Jason Wingard, 95 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW]

What did you think of this week’s film releases? Let me know in the comments section and also take a look at last week’s review round-up.

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