Downfall Review

I have reviewed many war films before, but none of them has been like this one. The common phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ is often true of films; there have been few movies set from the perspective of the German’s in the years since the Second World War, with good reason, but there are still important stories to tell from that side of the conflict. Other than this film, I can only think of one other (The Aftermath, a very forgettable drama from a few years ago). It isn’t that the film is sympathetic to the Nazi regime, quite the opposite, but any movie in which Adolf Hitler is the main protagonist is sure to raise some eyebrows.

I remember talking about this film with my correspondent Ian (who sent me this film), and he said that the film almost makes you feel sorry for the dictator. While I certainly don’t think that was the films’ intent, I can see where he’s coming from. Fair warning to anyone who hasn’t heard of it; it is like no other war film you will ever see. It’s dark, shocking, and utterly riveting. It’s a story of some of histories darkest psyches unravelling as their impending doom looms over them.

In the dying days of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler assembles his top generals and soldiers in his bunker in Berlin, just as the Red Army is closing in. As it becomes more apparent that their situation is hopeless, the despot’s mind begins to unravel as he questions everyone around him and makes arrangements for his demise.

Refreshingly, this is a film I can talk about at length without spoiling it for anyone. We all know how Hitler’s life came to an end after all, but what this film offers is a glimpse at the final days and hours of one of history’s most evil men, as he crumbles from a feared leader in the eyes of his subjects to a frail man falling apart as much in his mind as his body. I’m well aware that this film is not a documentary, so it is wise to allow for some artistic licence, but it has the authoritative feel of a well-researched piece of historical drama; after all, it is based on the diaries of Hitler’s secretary.

It would help if you went into this film expecting something more resembling a political thriller than a war film. There are depictions of battles like many other films of this ilk, but the focus is more on the unfolding drama below ground than above it. Most of the film takes place inside Hitler’s bunker, giving it a claustrophobic feel that only adds to the film’s sense of dread. The bunker feels like a character in itself, only adding to the dismay and mental anguish as the doomed regime deals with its final few days. The walls are very much closing in around them, and they don’t want to be around when it’s the Russians closing in instead.

It certainly isn’t a film for the faint of heart either. It includes several graphic scenes of injury detail and several other examples of the horrors of war. Then there’s the issue of hearing (or rather, reading) the dialogue from the Nazi characters, extolling their virtues and talking of their wish for the extermination of other races. Their general contempt for their civilians will chill you to the core. Even if this is a work of fiction, the accuracy of the portrayals and the fact the dialogue is in German is enough to make it all seem too real for comfort.

It is the performances that make the film come to life. In particular, the central performance of Bruno Ganz is astonishing. It’s so realistic that it’s bone-chilling. Furthermore, it shows the ill-health the Nazi leader was in at the time. Rather than standing out as a strong, charismatic leader, he instead cuts a weak, rather pathetic figure. His vitriol has not weakened, but his body and mind certainly have. Ganz’s performance in the strategy meeting scenes are a tour de force, as the mask of self-assuredness drops, and we see a Hitler who is defeated in his mind long before the war was lost.

I feel I must also applaud how the film is scripted and directed. Its runtime exceeds two hours, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as long as that, the sign of a genuinely engaging narrative and the composition of its more tense scenes are masterful. Highlighting the sense of claustrophobia the film has by setting the pivotal scenes in a cramped room, as the characters start to turn on each other with the enemy drawing ever nearer. It is remarkable stuff.

This film may not be to everyone’s tastes, I must say. Firstly the fact that it’s all in German will put many people off. Still, I preferred seeing these German characters speak their language to each other. It is a German film (well, German co-production) after all, but it is a reasonably accessible experience. The subtitles are easy enough to follow. Even for a particularly dialogue-heavy film, it’s easy to understand what is going on. Its content may also put people off, and that too is understandable. Even if the film isn’t at all sympathetic towards Hitler, it does humanise him a fair bit, but that is partly what makes it all so unnerving.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It’s a welcome change of pace from the usual WWII fare. Focusing on what was going on in the ‘enemy camp’, as it were, rather than telling a familiar story, it feels like a fresh experience. It is a difficult watch, yes, I can’t deny that, but its portrayal of these unsavoury characters is what makes the film so chilling, they are monsters, but they’re human, and that’s what makes them so scary, the fact the people like this can (and indeed still do) exist. Helping this along by some truly fantastic acting and direction, highlighted by an incredible leading performance, Downfall may well be one of the best WWII films I’ve seen in recent memory.

Downfall Review (In Deutsch)

Ich habe schon viele Kriegsfilme rezensiert, aber keiner von ihnen war so wie dieser. Der übliche Ausdruck “Geschichte wird von den Siegern geschrieben” trifft häufig auf Filme zu. In den Jahren seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg wurden aus gutem Grund nur wenige Filme aus der Sicht der Deutschen gedreht, aber es gibt immer noch wichtige Geschichten, die von dieser Seite des Konflikts zu erzählen sind. Abgesehen von diesem Film kann ich nur an einen anderen denken (The Aftermath, ein sehr unvergessliches Drama von vor einigen Jahren). Es ist nicht so, dass der Film mit dem NS-Regime sympathisiert, ganz im Gegenteil, aber jeder Film, in dem Adolf Hitler der Hauptdarsteller ist, wird mit Sicherheit einige Augenbrauen hochziehen.


Ich erinnere mich, dass ich mit meinem Korrespondenten Ian (der mir diesen Film geschickt hat) über diesen Film gesprochen habe, und er sagte, dass der Diktator bei dem Film fast Mitleid mit Ihnen hat. Ich glaube zwar nicht, dass das die Absicht des Films war, aber ich kann sehen, woher er kommt. Faire Warnung an alle, die noch nichts davon gehört haben; Es ist wie kein anderer Kriegsfilm, den Sie jemals sehen werden. Es ist dunkel, schockierend und absolut fesselnd. Es ist eine Geschichte von einigen der dunkelsten Psychen der Geschichte, die sich auflösen, während ihr bevorstehendes Schicksal über ihnen auftaucht.


In den letzten Tagen des Zweiten Weltkriegs versammelt Adolf Hitler seine Top-Generäle und Soldaten in seinem Bunker in Berlin, gerade als sich die Rote Armee nähert. Als sich herausstellt, dass ihre Situation hoffnungslos ist, beginnt sich der Geist des Despoten zu entwirren als er alle um sich herum befragt und Vorkehrungen für seinen Tod trifft.

Erfrischenderweise ist dies ein Film, über den ich ausführlich sprechen kann, ohne ihn für irgendjemanden zu verderben. Wir alle wissen, wie Hitlers Leben schließlich zu Ende ging, aber was dieser Film bietet, ist ein Blick auf die letzten Tage und Stunden eines der bösesten Männer der Geschichte, als er von einem gefürchteten Führer in den Augen seiner Untertanen zu einem zusammenbricht gebrechlicher Mann, der in seinem Geist genauso auseinander fällt wie in seinem Körper. Mir ist klar, dass dieser Film kein Dokumentarfilm ist, daher ist es ratsam, eine künstlerische Lizenz zuzulassen, aber er hat das maßgebliche Gefühl eines gut recherchierten historischen Dramas. Immerhin basiert es auf den Tagebüchern von Hitlers Sekretär.


Es wäre hilfreich, wenn Sie in diesen Film gehen und etwas erwarten würden, das eher einem politischen Thriller als einem Kriegsfilm ähnelt. Es gibt Darstellungen von Schlachten wie in vielen anderen Filmen dieser Art, aber der Fokus liegt mehr auf dem sich entfaltenden Drama unter der Erde als über der Erde. Der größte Teil des Films spielt in Hitlers Bunker, was ihm ein klaustrophobisches Gefühl verleiht, das das Gefühl der Angst des Films nur noch verstärkt. Der Bunker fühlt sich wie ein Charakter an sich an und verstärkt nur die Bestürzung und seelische Angst, wenn das zum Scheitern verurteilte Regime seine letzten Tage bewältigt. Die Mauern schließen sich sehr stark um sie herum, und sie wollen nicht in der Nähe sein, wenn sich stattdessen die Russen nähern.


Es ist sicherlich auch kein Film für schwache Nerven. Es enthält mehrere grafische Szenen mit Verletzungsdetails und einige andere Beispiele für die Schrecken des Krieges. Dann geht es darum, den Dialog der Nazi-Charaktere zu hören (oder vielmehr zu lesen), ihre Tugenden zu preisen und über ihren Wunsch nach Ausrottung anderer Rassen zu sprechen. Ihre allgemeine Verachtung für ihre Zivilisten wird Sie bis ins Mark erschrecken. Auch wenn es sich um eine Fiktion handelt, reicht die Genauigkeit der Darstellungen und die Tatsache, dass der Dialog auf Deutsch ist, aus, um alles zu real erscheinen zu lassen, um es zu trösten.


Es sind die Performances, die den Film zum Leben erwecken. Insbesondere die zentrale Leistung von Bruno Ganz ist erstaunlich. Es ist so realistisch, dass es knochenschreckend ist. Darüber hinaus zeigt es die Krankheit, in der sich der Naziführer zu dieser Zeit befand. Anstatt sich als starker, charismatischer Führer hervorzuheben, macht er stattdessen eine schwache, eher erbärmliche Figur. Sein Vitriol ist nicht geschwächt, aber sein Körper und sein Geist haben es sicherlich. Ganzs Auftritt in den Strategiesitzungsszenen ist eine Tour de Force, da die Maske der Selbstsicherheit abfällt und wir einen Hitler sehen, der lange vor dem Ende des Krieges in seinem Kopf besiegt ist.


Ich muss auch applaudieren, wie der Film geschrieben und inszeniert ist. Seine Laufzeit übersteigt zwei Stunden, aber es fühlt sich nicht annähernd so lange an, das Zeichen einer wirklich packenden Erzählung und die Komposition seiner angespannteren Szenen sind meisterhaft. Der Film unterstreicht das Gefühl der Klaustrophobie, indem er die zentralen Szenen in einem engen Raum spielt, während sich die Charaktere gegenseitig angreifen und der Feind immer näher rückt. Es ist bemerkenswertes Zeug.


Dieser Film ist vielleicht nicht jedermanns Sache, muss ich sagen. Erstens wird die Tatsache, dass alles auf Deutsch ist, viele Menschen abschrecken. Trotzdem habe ich es vorgezogen, wenn diese deutschen Schriftzeichen ihre Sprache miteinander sprechen. Es ist zwar ein deutscher Film (na ja, deutsche Koproduktion), aber es ist eine einigermaßen zugängliche Erfahrung. Die Untertitel sind leicht zu folgen. Selbst für einen besonders dialogintensiven Film ist es leicht zu verstehen, was los ist. Sein Inhalt kann auch Menschen abschrecken, und auch das ist verständlich. Auch wenn der Film Hitler überhaupt nicht sympathisiert, humanisiert er ihn ein bisschen, aber das ist zum Teil das, was macht alles so nervig.

Insgesamt hat mir dieser Film sehr gut gefallen. Es ist eine willkommene Abwechslung zum üblichen Tarif des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Wenn man sich sozusagen auf das konzentriert, was im “feindlichen Lager” vor sich geht, anstatt eine vertraute Geschichte zu erzählen, fühlt es sich wie eine neue Erfahrung an. Es ist eine schwierige Uhr, ja, das kann ich nicht leugnen, aber die Darstellung dieser unappetitlichen Charaktere macht den Film so gruselig, sie sind Monster, aber sie sind Menschen, und das macht sie so beängstigend, die Tatsache Die Menschen wie diese können (und existieren immer noch) existieren. Downfall ist einer der besten Filme des Zweiten Weltkriegs, die ich in letzter Zeit gesehen habe.

Evolution of Animation: Part Four – War! Huh! What is it Good For? Propaganda!

First three parts available here, here, and here

Just as Walt Disney was exploring the possibilities that feature-length animation could bring, the world at large was about to be thrown into turmoil.

On September 1st, 1939, the German army marched on Poland, rolling over the country as the Polish defence was no match for the invading forces. This act began, in earnest, the Second World War.

Admittedly, in the early years of the war, from Poland’s invasion right up until December 1941, the war was fought almost exclusively in Europe. With the notable exception of Japan, which were on the Germans’ side and were the reason that the war eventually arrived on America’s shores.

It is worth noting that it is not strictly true that the USA had no part in the early days of the war. Although they were determined to avoid being dragged into another costly world war publicly, they supported Britain by selling arms and other supplies to their allies (The UK would continue to pay war debt to the USA until the end of 2006, sixty-one years later).

America would be eventually dragged into the war in the most public and violent ways possible when the Imperial Japanese Empire launched an attack on Pearl Harbour. A US naval base situated on the island of Hawaii. The Japanese Navy surprised the US forces by bombing the base, sinking several of America’s battleships, destroyed planes, and killing over 2,000 servicemen, along with several civilians.

The USA subsequently declared war on Japan. This lead to Germany declaring war on the US soon after, therefore officially joining the allies in fighting the war.

“Well thanks for the history lesson and all, but what has this got to0 do with animation?” You might be asking yourself, well, first of all, have some patience. All that stress will raise your blood pressure. Secondly, animation was a key tool in the American war effort during the Second World War., To the extent that some shorts were even government-funded as they were good morale boosters for the troops and the population at home.

One man keen to help in this area was Walt Disney (long-time readers will remember that Walt tried to enlist during the tail-end of World War I but was ultimately shipped out after the signing of the armistice). With the memories of Snow White’s successes still fresh in the mind, he was more than willing to help with the war effort.

Perhaps the most well-known of Disney’s war propaganda shorts (although not entirely for the right reasons) is Der Fuhrer’s Face. In the short, Donald Duck has a nightmare in which he’s forced to work in an artillery factory for Nazi Germany. It includes a lot of imagery that would be unacceptable today. Such as Donald throwing up a Nazi salute while shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ (although admittedly, it is kinda funny to hear that said in Donald’s voice). Not to mention its depictions of Japanese soldiers, which have aged just as poorly as you imagine.

This era was not a particularly profitable one for Disney. The Government’s war office partially funded Their films. Still, this arrangement was not intended to line Disney’s pockets but was for, as we’ve discussed, propaganda. It didn’t help that their feature films at the time weren’t setting the box office on fire either. The ’40s opened with Fantasia, which was critically lauded (and was regarded by Disney himself as his masterpiece), but not a big hit. Neither was the following feature, Dumbo. More significant a box-office flop was 1942’s Bambi. Given the nature of the opening scene of Bambi, it’s easy to see why families who might have experienced personal loss would enjoy watching a baby deer lose her mother for their entertainment. It’s beloved today, especially for its art, but was financially disappointing at the time.

These box office disappointments were followed by a change of tact in Disney’s release strategy, as their focus shifted from fairy tales to so-called ‘package films’. Several shorts edited together as a feature-length ‘package’. This new era of Disney feature films began with Saludos Amigos in 1943, followed by The Three Caballeros in 1945, just before the war ended. Neither of these we successful at the box office either. Saludos Amigos grossed just over $1.1million, and The Three Callaberos didn’t do much better, raking in only $3.3million.

Not that Disney was the only game in town during the war. Other studios were also providing the US government with films to boost morale. Most notable of these was the film series about the character ‘Private Snafu’, a Warner Brothers creation. The character was solely intended to instruct the military about certain wartime dangers but are now declassified and widely available on the internet.

These films were more adult-oriented in tone to suit the sensibilities of young soldiers. Since they were never intended to be available for public viewing, they tend to include more mature themes. Even the name ‘Snafu’ comes from a rather X-rated military acronym SNAFU, which means ‘Situation Normal. All Fucked Up.’ (sometimes also “All Fouled Up” if used in print or on the radio). The character was animated by Chuck Jones and voiced by Mel Blanc (both legendary names I will cover later).

These films were shown to soldiers because his character was intended to show what a soldier should not do during a war, such as carrying a gas mask or not talking about military secrets in public. These events usually end with Snafu getting killed due to his stupidity.; Hoping that the soldiers watching would learn not to copy Snafu and survive long enough to go back home. The success of these films with the military helped Warner Brother animation survive in the financially disastrous era.

So the world emerged from the war a much different place after the second worldwide war in under fifty years. Countries were divided, and the survivors would still bear the scars for the rest of their lives. The war left even the victorious countries to pick through the rubble and rebuild themselves. 

The animation industry was similarly bruised and battered from the effects of war. Box office receipts were, perhaps understandably, down as a result of the war. Most studios work had been in aid of the war, so hadn’t turned a profit either. Although the war had necessitated the studios staying open due to their propaganda production, they were now in a somewhat financial precarious position, to put it mildly. Still, animation would bounce back as the 40s turned into the 50s, but that’s a story for another time…

Next time: The rise of Looney Tunes and Warner Bros.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition) Review

Of all the films that could have done with an extended edition, this ain’t it.

Perhaps it was a natural move to make after the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films in the early-2000s to adapt The Hobbit, the book that launched Middle Earth into hearts and minds in the first place. What wasn’t a natural move, however, was turning a singular book of a little over 300 pages into a trilogy of over-stuffed films that each clock in at over two-and-a-half hours, and then release an extended edition of these films. Films that were more padding than filling in the first place. These editions are basically the Wonderbra of cinema.

The extended editions of the LotR films at least made sense. Those were each an adaptation of a single book, each one more layered than that last with detail and worldbuilding, The Hobbit is not like these stories. It’s a much simpler narrative that maintains the rich world of its successors but doesn’t detail it quite as much. It was a story with a younger audience in mind, and to take that charming tale and stretch it into three films, never mind extended length films, is going to do the original story no favours at all.

I have long thought that buried somewhere amongst this trilogy there is enough for one truly great adaptation, if you take elements of each film, maybe two at a push, but as they stand, they’re bloated, meandering, and dull. There is greatness hidden in here, but it’s hidden behind a wall of padding and fan service, shoehorned into a narrative that didn’t really need it; but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm/Martin Freeman) is a hobbit living an idyllic, peaceful, and adventure-free life in The Shire when he is visited by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who is looking for someone to share an adventure with. Despite his best protestations, he is roped into a quest to take back a great Dwarf kingdom from the dragon, Smaug, accompanied by thirteen dwarves. Along the way, they will encounter all the perils that Middle Earth has to offer as they fight their way towards The Lonely Mountain…

The over-riding feeling I get from The Hobbit films is one of disappointment. I was late to the Middle Earth fan train, I must admit, but after seeing the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings, I was taken in hook, line, and sinker. The way the world was so lovingly realised and presented by Peter Jackson made them seem like such a labour of love; something painstakingly assembled by a talented crew. In contrast, The Hobbit seems to be a product that is more interested in satisfying shareholders.

Don’t get me wrong, there are elements of the things we loved about LotR here, the visual design, the setting, and the performances are all still there, but the product lacks that feeling of craftsmanship that the first trilogy has. It feels more cynical, a matter not helped by artificially extending its run time into three films, requiring the use of copious amounts of filler, and elements not included in the original text.

When I think of the experience of sitting through the extended LotR films, I remember the time flying by. The three-plus hours feeling like no more than two hours as I became more absorbed in the epic narrative. This film just felt like a slog in parts, despite being shorter than any LotR film. It doesn’t justify its runtime like those films did. They needed to be long because there was so much to include; whereas these films feel like they’re making things up in order to make the film longer.

The nadir of this for me came in a scene quite close to the climax of the film involving Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) the famous halfling monster who was arguably the breakout character in LotR. The scene involves the two characters playing riddles with each other, they challenge one another to solve their riddles, and this goes on for fifteen minutes, while the plot screeches to a halt in order to spotlight Gollum’s appearance. It’s an agonisingly dull scene in a film that was already dragging its feet as it crossed the two-hour mark with no end apparently in sight.

It’s especially disappointing given the obvious passion on display from those on-screen. Old hands like Ian McKellen and Ian Holm slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and new face Martin Freeman perfectly inhabits Bilbo Baggins in his younger days, lending the character his streak of cheeky charisma and every-man lovability. The old guard get their moments too, McKellen gets most of the screen time given his characters key role in the story, but it was nice to see familiar faces re-acquaint themselves with their famous roles.

The visual effects and music are also as stunning as they were during our first trip to Middle Earth, albeit leaning more heavily on the CGI this time, it would seem. The original trilogy’s effects have the ageless quality of combining practical and computer-generated effects, the drawback of relying on CGI is when technology inevitably moves on, it ages your film. Having said that this films aesthetic was very much in line with LotR’s and still looks spectacular.

The film does have its exciting moments too, don’t get me wrong, the final sequence with the orcs. The stone giants scene also stands out, but they’re buried beneath fluff and filler, like a very disappointing ice cream sundae. They went overboard with the squirty cream and shirked on the filling, so to speak.

While Peter Jackson is still the quintessential Middle Earth director, it feels like he’s starting to run out of steam in this trilogy, perhaps his heart wasn’t in it like it once was. Given that he wasn’t original scheduled to direct, that might well be the case, but I can’t help but feel like this trilogy is a vastly inferior product to the old trilogy. Even this film, which is probably the pick of the bunch in my mind, feels like it’s just filling time. They obviously had the story to tell but were determined to make it as long a journey as possible, no matter the length of the book they were adapting. That could be because they felt their audience expected the films to be lengthy, given what had come before. Or maybe it was for more cynical reasons of making more money over three films, rather than making one or two Hobbit films that could have really done the story justice. I can’t help but feel that my disappointment will worsen as the series wears on.

A Look Back at February 2021

Is it just me, or have these past two months just felt like one long January? It’s still dark and miserable, and I still can’t leave my flat. It feels like being stuck in Groundhog Day, but instead of constantly giving the same new report, I’m just always sat in my living room, sometimes watching something and sometimes staring into space.

So, yeah, obviously not a lot has happened this month, the UK is still in a nationwide lockdown, it feels like we’ve been in one for a year. Oh wait, we have (More or less). The UK government have now released their ‘roadmap’ for easing restrictions, and it’s as confusing and arbitrary as we’ve come to expect out of a group of people I wouldn’t trust to book a taxi on a night out, much less handle our way out of a pandemic, but we play the hand we’re dealt.

As a result of still being cooped up inside, I’m still only able to watch old films, as well as some new ones that have found their way onto streaming. Although if the best a streaming service can do is The Prom, then I’d rather not have new films at all. Still, that’s a negative outlook to have, there are more streaming films to get through, I just hope they’re an improvement, although I struggle to think how they could be worse.

Film of the Month: War Horse (2011) – Directed by Steven Spielberg

It was a tough choice this month, not because I had a vast array of good films to choose from, just that everything I have watched (with the exception of Daredevil, which is a TV series) has ranged from ‘basically okay’ to god-awful. That makes War Horse the winner by default I suppose, don’t let it go to your head now Steven.

Next month I’ve got some more war films to watch courtesy of my friend and patron Ian, I’ll also be looking at some recent streaming releases in the hope that something good lives on those, and I have a new ‘Evolution of Animation’ piece all finished and set to publish next week, so I hope you all enjoy that!

Coming To America Review

Some Hollywood stars lead a long and fruitful career spanning many decades. Some operate in the background and only get their dues as supporting players. Others burn brightly for a period and then eventually fizzle out, usually after a run of poorly-received or unprofitable projects. Eddie Murphy is someone who arguably belongs in this latter category.

First coming to prominence in the 1980s through his controversial stand-up routines, it didn’t take Murphy long to transition into making movies. His magnetic charisma and screen presence lead to a string of hits across the decade and well into the 90s. Films like Beverley Hills Cop, Trading Places, and the subject of today’s review cemented Murphy as a bankable star in Hollywood.

Although his success would fluctuate throughout the 90s, he continued to be a famous face in movies well into the 2000s. However, it was at this time where the wheels would start to fall off for the once dependable box-office draw. He shifted into family films in the late 90s/early 00s which also started off as a successful avenue with appearances in Mulan, Dr Dolittle, and most notably, Shrek. His career began a steep decline as the decade wore on, though, with notorious flop The Adventures of Pluto Nash unable to even break even in box office receipts. Although the mid-2000s brought him his one and only Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor in Dreamgirls), it would also see the film that would stop his career dead in its tracks; the infamous Norbit.

What is most interesting to note about this is that all the elements that mad Norbit such a titanic mess are present in Coming To America. The difference is that these elements were still fresh in 1988. By the time 2007 rolled around, we’d seen enough of Murphy in prosthetics, playing multiple characters, but he was still stuck in that mindset, refusing to believe the 80s were over. Murphy was still an exciting presence at this time; his star hadn’t yet shown any signs of fading, which is the difference between success and failure.

Either way, I had never seen Coming To America before watching it for the purposes of this review. In fact, I haven’t seen much old Murphy’s classic’ films at all. I think I may have seen Beverley Hills Cop at some point, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I decided to look at it now because the films’ long-awaited sequel is due to release on Prime Video next week, allowing me to catch up on what I’ve been missing.

Coming To America sees the pampered Prince Akeem (Murphy) from the fictional African country of Zamunda tired of his sheltered life and wanting to go out into the world to experience things for himself. On his wedding day, he persuades his father (played by James Earl Jones) to allow him to travel to America, where he can find a wife who he chooses, rather than one who has been trained at birth just for him.

This film must be quite highly thought of by a lot of people. After all, we wouldn’t be getting a sequel more than thirty years later if people didn’t like the first film. Sadly, I couldn’t really see anything special about it. It isn’t a bad experience, and it did make me laugh a few times, but I feel like it lacked a certain spark at times and generally could have flowed a lot better as a film. It has a fairly basic set-up, but one that lent itself well to fish-out-of-water comedy, but it didn’t do much to enhance its premise and ended up feeling a little flat.

I did like the character of Akeem, though. I was expecting a stereotypically entitled Prince-like character going in but was surprised by how warm and intelligent he is. He also seems to care for others, something that can’t be said for many of the people surrounding him, which made him a pleasant surprise as a protagonist. In films like this, I’d usually expect the Prince to go through an arc where he is taught humility because those around him demand it. Still, here the Prince seems to want to learn that by himself, and the people in his court would rather be a more aloof royal figure, which made for a nice change of pace.

So the character was there but where the film really falls down is in its plot. Not a lot happens in it. There are no real comedy set pieces to speak of. No big character moments show any depth in the world around Akeem; events just happen. They drift by unnoticed, and it feels like a vast empty space inhabited by one compelling character and a host of stock archetypes.

The best comedy scenes come in the form of the Barbershop scenes. I’d heard about these scenes before, so I knew them by reputation, but I didn’t expect them to provide the biggest laughs in the film. These scenes also provide the genesis for Murphy’s obsession with playing multiple characters; that trend starts here. Admittedly, this film is funny, with his and Arsenio Hall’s motormouthed barbers arguing about boxers providing my own personal highlight. As well as an incredible makeup job on Murphy to turn him into the Jewish customer, Saul (yet another character for him to play), which is so convincing you wouldn’t know if it was him if you hadn’t heard about it previously. While these scenes provide the biggest laughs, they are also partially to blame for what came after them in Murphy’s career, so whether you see them as positive or negative is a matter for debate. They’re undoubtedly playing off stereotypes (ones that will wear thin in the next few decades), but they reflect some of Murphy’s stand-up routines in a way, and at least they’re funny, which is more than can be said about Norbit.

Is there anything else I liked about this film? For sure. It’s always great to see James Earl Jones and listen to his voice which is so smooth you could spread it on your toast, and Akeem’s love interest Lisa is also fairly interesting. She’s strong-willed and independent, something that makes her break-up from Darryl (her then-boyfriend) in the film all the more satisfying. It should also be pointed out that it’s relatively ground-breaking how this film with a largely-black cast became such a success. It’s surprising to see from a movie in the late 80s, but not unwelcome.

Ultimately, Coming To America just didn’t feel like a film intended for me, and that’s fine. It did leave me cold, but not in an abrasive way, it just felt like a film that wasn’t supposed to be for me, and that’s maybe why it didn’t land so well with me. It’s over-long, too, further compounding its problems and making it seem like less happened in it. When you consider that I already thought it was uneventful, being over-long just really puts those problems into sharper focus.

I can see why it was popular, and Murphy is incredibly likeable and charismatic, but I just couldn’t connect with it as a whole experience. It has a few laughs but is just too slow and uneventful for me to recommend it. No matter how much I might have enjoyed watching Murphy in this role, he can’t quite save it on his own.

The Prom Review

Poor Meryl Streep. Is your career struggling so much that you were forced to sign onto this putrid cacophony of nonsense?

Forgive me, I don’t typically give the game away quite so early, do I? But I cannot accurately describe this feeling of hatred that currently squats in my stomach like all of the bile in my body has combined to create a vicious, film-destroying monster.

Let me say first and foremost, I hadn’t read any reviews of this film, as I knew that I’d eventually want to take a look at it myself eventually and didn’t want to colour my view of the film. I’d heard murmurs from the grapevine about it, but nothing I put too much stock in. Now that I’ve watched it, I feel like I’ve been through some bizarre grieving process. It started as bubbling anger that soon rose to a boiling point, then it mutated into embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the actors involved, not to mention the very relevant story it was trying to tell, which was busy being defiled by simply the worst aspects of a terrible musical. Then, finally, embarrassment gave way to exhaustion, and that’s how I feel now. Still mad, but mostly just tired.

Behind all of this mess is (as I mentioned) a very relevant and worthy story. One we have no doubt heard or seen some variation on in the past decade or so. The story is based on a 2010 controversy in Mississippi where a teenage girl wanted to take her girlfriend to her high school prom. Because it was the bible belt, she was banned from the dance. This film (and the musical it is adapted from) take this premise, moves it to Indiana, and insert several caricatures of Broadway actors trying to be activists, one of which is James Corden playing an absurd cartoon gay man.

Now, I know there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding Corden’s casting and performance (not that James Corden being cast in anything should be uncontroversial). Still, I shut that out and wanted the film to speak for itself. Instead, the film opened its mouth and vomited onto my shoes.

I am a gay man. I have mentioned this before, I don’t think it’s a surprise. Generally, I don’t have too much of a problem with straight actors playing gay roles; I would rather they be played by an actor who identifies more closely with them, but if an actor is the right person for the job, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t play them. In no universe was James Corden right for this character. As far as the writing goes, he was reasonably unsalvageable anyway, but seeing Corden, a straight man, mincing around as the worst caricature of a gay character I have seen in years, boils my blood. It’s an insult, not only to the gay community at large but to the very serious story it is undermining with its willful ignorance. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I don’t rate James Corden, but this is a new low even for him. It’s hard not to be insulted when this is how gay people were still portrayed in 2020. I wouldn’t expect this from even the worst of the controversial comedians looking for controversy, much less of a film produced by a major studio and directed by a gay man, no less!

Ryan Murphy is the man behind this film. Predominantly known for his TV work, such as Glee and American Horror Story, his work can be described as ‘formulaic’ in recent years. He seems to work mainly with stereotypes, and sometimes this works. Glee, his first big hit, used many of these too, but at its best, it played against them and subverted them. It could be lazy at times, but not as bad as this.

This film is about as fundamentally wrong as you can get. Hooking the audience in with its meaningful and worthy story and then spending the next 140 minutes beating you over the head with stereotypes and clichés. What should have been a powerful statement for universal acceptance is instead a laughing stock. Something that preaches acceptance and equality while all the while being blindingly awful in its unknowing discrimination. It’s not just the terrible performance of Corden, but the presentation of his character. Trying to portray the genuine struggles of being LGBT in an unaccepting world through such an absurd character, played with such little grace, there is no way you can possibly take him, or the film, seriously.

My heart aches for the talent in this film who are so obviously trying to make it work. Andrew Rannells, himself an openly gay actor, tries to make his paper-thin character entertaining while sharing screen-time with a character who is such a blatant insult to his sexuality, and the young actors, who, bless them, are trying so hard to make their performances count. They act some of the more experienced performers off of the screen and seem to be genuinely passionate about the person they’re portraying. Keegan-Michael Key tries to get something redeemable out of the terrible script, but it’s a lost cause.

Then there’s Meryl Streep. Perhaps the most revered screen actress of the last thirty years, she sleepwalks through this film with a look in her eyes that tells me she’d rather have been anywhere else but this film, and who can blame her? Well, we should blame her. She could have put something, anything, into her performance. Instead, she acts blankly to people she can barely muster the effort to acknowledge as being there with her.

The music is, well, it’s undoubtedly there. That’s the best I can say, really. It’s cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill, throwaway Broadway slop that any songwriters worth their salt could have thrown together inside a day. Like the rest of the film, it’s passionless. It has something to say, but no idea how to say it in any interesting way. There isn’t a single song that you will remember after the credits roll, and that’s the worst thing you can say about any musical. You need a song for the audience to be humming to themselves afterwards, and this film has nothing memorable on its soundtrack. I’m sure it probably worked better on Broadway, but it doesn’t translate well onto the screen.

SO, for the second year running, James Corden stars in a terrible musical film. When we thought it couldn’t get worse than Cats, he throws on a sparkly suit, affects a horrific camp American accent and minces about to once again prove why he’s the single worst actor who continually finds work in Hollywood. That’s quite the crowded category too, but there is absolutely nothing redeeming about him in this film in particular. Of course, it isn’t just him, but from the first line of dialogue he spoke, I wanted to tear my own eardrums out.

Overall, a terrible script, complimented by a mediocre soundtrack, with an admittedly partially-talented cast, comes together to form perhaps the worst movie musical I have ever seen. I feel insulted and ashamed to be a fan of musicals because this exists. To make matters worse, it takes a message of LGBTQ+ acceptance and shows it absolutely zero respect. How can you make a film where the central struggle is one of a gay person fighting for approval, and in the same breath, try and justify Corden’s character. I wanted to turn it off after fifteen minutes, but I stuck it out purely because I didn’t want to let it beat me, no matter how much second-hand embarrassment I felt for the talented actors caught up in this mess. This film truly is bottom of the barrel stuff, and I hated it in ways I never knew I could.

If this is the best Netflix can do, shut it all down now.

MFR Hall of Fame Inductee: Martin Scorsese

Category: Director

Active: 1963-Present

Honours:

Academy Awards: 2 wins (Best Picture & Best Director for The Departed), 15 nominations

BAFTA Awards: 3 wins (Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Goodfellas), 14 nominations

Directors Guild of America Awards: 2 wins (Outstanding Directing – Feature Film for The Departed, and Outstanding Directing – Drama Series for Boardwalk Empire), 12 nominations

Golden Globe Awards: 3 wins (Best Director – Motion Picture for Gangs of New York, The Departed, and Hugo), 10 nominations

Grammy Awards: 1 win (Best Music Film for No Direction Home), 3 nominations

Emmy Awards: 3 wins (Outstanding Directing For a Drama Series for Boardwalk Empire, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special & Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program for George Hamilton: Living in the Material World), 11 nominations

Has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (located at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard)

Culturally Significant Productions:

Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006)

Career Summary:

Scorsese is now considered an all-time great in Hollywood, and with good reason. His CV speaks for itself really, but aside from his multitude of awards, his real legacy is the influence he has had on cinema. Most notably in recent years, his fingerprints can be seen all over 2019’s Joker, which owes a lot of its DNA to Scorsese’s King of Comedy.

Not only is his style so recognisable now, but his directing has lead many great actors into their most famous roles, not to mention several awards. He has directed no less than seven Oscar winning performances, including Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, and Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. His frequent collaborators read like a who’s-who of Hollywood, and he continues to attract the biggest and brightest stars.

In each of the last four decades, Scorsese has released a film which many other directors would envy. The 1970s had Ragin Bull, The 80s Raging Bull, the 90s? Goodfellas. Even in the past two decades, as Scorsese approaches eighty, he still produces incredible work such as 2019’s The Irishman. He hasn’t released a film in this decade yet (he is working on another epic that was postponed by COVID). In the hands of any other director, any of these films would be their masterpiece, for Scorsese, it’s just another day’s work.

Introducing the Major Film Reviews Hall of Fame!

I’m always looking for ways to diversify my output on this site, and while new releases are quiet, I thought now was the best time to celebrate those iconic figures from cinema.

This is an idea I’ve been playing with for some time; I sometimes find myself wanting to write more about a particular director or actor in my reviews, but fear taking the focus from the review. This format allows me to spotlight the best the silver screen has to offer and properly reflect on their careers.

This won’t be a feature I use every week, as I’d soon run low on people to talk about, no, this will be an occasional feature, appearing on at the very least a bi-monthly basis, in order to spread to a number of different names.

Of course, a Hall of Fame should have a criteria. Otherwise it’d just be an excuse for me to talk about my favourite people (it still will be to some extent, admittedly). Therefore I am laying out the following criteria for MFR Hall of Fame induction:

  1. Their career must span at least thirty years.
  2. They must have contributed creatively to a film.
  3. Their work should be culturally or critically significant.

This is admittedly a fairly broad church. This process is more of an art than a science, and it turns out to be a lot more difficult to set rules about what is undoubtedly a subjective thing such as film. I chose not to add the need to have received any kind of award, as these are also only as significant as one allows them to be There are plenty of great talents who have never won an Academy Award, for instance, so only allowing Oscar winner in wouldn’t exactly be a fair metric. Their awards will be taken into consideration, and mentioned in the write-up, but are not absolutely necessary.

I hope you all enjoy this new feature on my site, and keep an eye out for the first inductee later on today!

War Horse Review

There are few duos in Hollywood as successful and revered as Steven Spielberg and John Williams. The director and the maestro have had a lucrative partnership that spans five decades and a truckload of awards. To date, they have worked on twenty-eight films together (starting with 1974’s The Sugarland Express), and their partnership shows no signs of fading as each man enters their twilight years.

Both men are also considered to be the best at what they do. Although the jury is out for Spielberg (who has had his fair share of duds in his career), there can be little doubt over John Williams” claim as the greatest film composer of all-time. His resume, with or without Spielberg, speaks for itself. If you can think of an iconic piece of music from a film score, chances are it’s one of his. ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars? Yep. The theme from Superman? Yes. The iconic music from Jurassic Park? You betcha.

The legendary duo aren’t even the only recognisable names attached to this film either. The screenplay was written by Lee Hall (Billy ElliotRocketman) and Richard Curtis (Four Wedding and a Funeral, Love Actually). It’s safe to say that this film was as thoroughbred as you can get (pun very much intended).

This film also sees Spielberg return to making a war film. Albeit one set during the First World War instead of the Second. Arguably, Spielberg’s history with war films makes the shoes War Horse has to fill even more prominent, a thought that stuck with me throughout the film.

Based on the popular children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a thoroughbred named Joey. We see his beginnings on a farm in Devon, his connection with Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and his role in helping Albert’s family farm’s fortunes. With the First World War outbreak, Joey is sold to the British Army to aid with the war effort. Albert is heartbroken but vows to be reunited with his horse one day.

From early on in this film, I knew it would be a difficult one to write about. Mainly because of what I said a few paragraphs ago, my subconscious mind was constantly trying to stack it up against Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, a comparison that War Horse was always going to struggle to come through positively. Maybe it’s unfair to compare them as they’re stories of a different war, but the film seems to hit similar beats to Spielberg’s World War Two pictures.

A phrase that kept occurring to me while watching was ‘playing the hits’. In much the same way an ageing rock band wheel out the same songs night after night, Williams and Spielberg go back to the same stream where they panned so much gold in the 90s. The result was never going to stack up reasonably. A few moments, specifically in the later open warfare sections, feel like a direct homage to Saving Private Ryan‘s now-iconic opening scene.

It’s not that War Horse isn’t good or doesn’t have its own merits. It looks and sounds fantastic, but given the talent involved, it was always going to. Williams’ score is a highlight, sweeping and triumphant as well as ominous and foreboding in all the right places; it’s definitely an effort worthy of the great maestro. But again, I can’t help but think about how it stacks up against some of his other works, and it inevitably doesn’t shine as brightly.

The cinematography is also a delight. With frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski in charge of the cameras, it would have been even more surprising if it wasn’t. Still, it truly is a wonderfully-shot film, matching the films’ epic tone at the moments it needs to, and once again portraying the horrors of war with a visceral sense of flair present in Spielberg’s previous masterpieces.

I think the main issue with War Horse is that it just isn’t as personal when compared to Spielberg’s best work. Schindler’s List is a movie that only Spielberg could have made, or at the very least someone like Spielberg. It was a story that demanded to be told from a Jewish perspective. It is very much an outlier in his back catalogue, too. With many of his titles trying to appeal to as vast a crowd as possible, Schindler’s List was instead an artful, very personal tale that you could tell meant a lot to him. Saving Private Ryan might not have had that much of a connection as Schindler’s List. Still, it certainly helped the film to have him at the helm, and the American imagery behind it would have been a lot closer to his heart than this film.

In comparison, War Horse feels like a film that could have been made by any number of directors. I don’t feel like there was a personal connection between filmmaker and film as there had been in the past, which works to its detriment. Suppose anything, it might have benefitted from a lesser-known director, as Spielberg’s excesses (the film’s length is the main gripe here) are also on show. In that case, you’d think a younger head would have been pulled back somewhat, and I doubt anyone would have said no to someone like Spielberg.

Besides being overlong, some other moments break the film’s spell, too, such as the German soldiers speaking to each other in English. I understand some of them would have spoken English to interrogate prisoners, but when addressing each other? I’m sure using German with subtitles wouldn’t have turned too many people off. It may seem like a minor quibble, but things like this can really break your immersion in a story. Or maybe that’s just me.

There are still things I liked about War Horse, though. For instance, I like the even-handed portrayals of each sides soldiers. The Germans aren’t necessarily shown to be the bad guys, but more like equal aggressors. In fact, perhaps my favourite scene in the film includes one soldier from each side working together to save the titular horse. This, combined with some incredible war scenes in no man’s land, the cinematography that so artfully pops off the screen, and another rousing Williams score, means that there’s enough to recommend about War Horse.

Depending on how much you read into films, you might love this film. It is when stacked up against other movies in Spielberg’s canon that it starts to diminish. It may be “playing the hits”, but when your highs are as high as Spielberg’s, your greatest hits might just be enough.