It’s September, which means the summer blockbuster season is done and dusted. Of course there are still heaps of big films to come, but since I ended up taking a bit of a break from this site after Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood, I thought I’d give a quick update on a few of the films I managed to catch – but didn’t get to give the fully written-up treatment – in these toasty months…
Blinded By The Light
After the execrable Bohemian Rhapsody somehow managed to worm its way into the hearts and minds of the average moviegoer, filmmakers in 2019 seem to be hellbent on making something superior. From Dexter Fletcher’s stunning Rocketman, to Danny Boyle’s wonderfully heartfelt Yesterday, film studios clearly feel like they’re on to a winner with these fresh takes on jukebox musical movies.
Last month saw Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light released in cinemas across the country. Based on the memoirs of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, the film tells the story of Javed Khan, a British Pakistani teenager and aspiring writer in late-1980s Luton, who discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen and, in a moment of epiphany, commits himself to live his life in the teachings of The Boss.
All of this takes place against the harsh backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain: massive job losses, industries dying, white nationalists on the streets and little chance of a bright future. The Khan family find themselves caught in the unyielding current of change, and so the central tension of the film is between Javed’s dogged determination to follow his own path, and the expectations of his family – specifically his father – to help bring in money to the household.
So far so old-school British film, but what sets Blinded By The Light apart is its soundtrack: an unbeatable selection of choice cuts from Bruce Springsteen’s back catalogue. Given that Springsteen was considered passé by the time of the film’s setting, Javed and his Sikh friend Roops are routinely mocked for being such devoted disciples. However, given the stories and themes behind Springsteen’s writing, it doesn’t take long for the film to help the audience to understand just how the music of The Boss was so relatable to a teenage boy in Luton, of all places.
That moment when Javed hears one of Springsteen’s songs – “Dancing In The Dark” – for the first time is by far the film’s greatest moment. For so many people, that first listen of a new artist can and has proven life-changing, and Chadha’s direction captures that sublimely. Unfortunately, for all of the film’s upbeat feeling after that point, Blinded By The Light never really gets back to that level of greatness, and at times it threatens to fade away.
That’s not to take away from the great performances given by the film’s young cast. Viveik Kalra and Aaron Phagura are both revelations in this film as Javed and Roops; their discoveries stand as testament to Chadha’s success with discovering young talent (see: Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham).
While Blinded By The Light is ultimately a very slight affair, Kalra’s combination of giddy excitement and naive optimism in his portrayal of Javed gives weight to his struggle between his family and his future, and he gets some great emotional moments in scenes against Javed’s father, played by Kulvinder Ghir, and student activist love interest Eliza, played by Nell Williams.
If nothing else, Blinded By The Light succeeds in capturing that thrill of discovering a piece of art that affects you to your core, and takes over your whole life. Chadha’s latest didn’t do that for me, but it was a thoroughly pleasant couple of hours while it was on.
From the pleasant to the downright nasty, Alexandre Aja’s latest slice of horror, Crawl, arrived in UK cinemas after a decent performance at the American box office. The film, produced by Sam Raimi, takes place in Florida, seconds away from a Category 5 hurricane hitting landfall. Kaya Scodelario plays Haley, an aspiring competition swimmer who goes searching for her estranged dad, played by Barry Pepper, at their old family home, paying no heed whatsoever to the storm warnings being broadcast everywhere – as you do.
Conditions get super tough when Haley arrives at the old homestead, and so she takes shelter in the crawl-space underneath the building. There she finds her dad, bloodied and unconscious, in the company of at least two whopping great alligators.
From there, it becomes a race against time as Haley and her dad aim to escape the flooding crawl-space, and survive the very big, very hungry ‘gators.
I won’t give anything more away, as the story takes some thrilling, grisly turns, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Crawl. I saw it as a mystery screening at the Leicester Square World of Cine, and had no expectations whatsoever beforehand as a result.
Scodelario and Pepper have great chemistry together as a daughter and father combo, it’s a meaty lead female role and it’s hard not to root for Haley and her dad to try and make it out in one piece. The CGI alligators look like a very real threat too, and it goes to show how far the technology has come for a film with a humble budget ($13million, give or take) to include visual effects which are so convincing. Aja is a director who is well versed in the genre by now, having cut his teeth on remakes of The Hills Have Eyes (terrible) and Piranha (stupid but fun), and this is easily his best directorial effort to date. A lot of that comes down to an enjoyable screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who make the most of the confined space to create some entertaining, tense encounters – plus a few nasty shocks.
The whole thing clocks in at a respectable 87 minutes, and Crawl never outstays its welcome at any point. If you’ve 87 minutes to kill whilst this is still playing in cinemas, you could do a whole lot worse.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
André Øvredal is a director who, aside from directing 2010’s Troll Hunter, has stayed off my radar to date. However, if you’re the director of 2010’s Troll Hunter, I’m going to have a lot of time for anything you make after that.
Combined with a production credit for Guillermo del Toro, whose name features pretty heavily on the promotional material, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was looking like a pretty appetising prospect going in. I was never made familiar with the literary source material, but the trailer suggested a good fun horror ride; something for which I’m always on board.
Perhaps it was my expectations from the filmmakers’ previous work, or the pretty unnerving pre-release promotion, but I felt underwhelmed by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The majority of the issue lies with the stories themselves: they’re just not that scary. Granted, the stories’ origins are from a book intended for younger readers, but thanks to the film’s 15 certificate, it has to justify itself existing on the same level as something far more intense – something it never really does.
To the film’s credit, and more than likely as a result of the del Toro connection, the set design work in Scary Stories is really something. The classic spooky house setting which bookends the film’s events is beautifully decrepit, and the commitment to Scary Stories‘ late-1960s Americana aesthetic gives the film a real old-school throwback quality.
Performance-wise, the main group of friends we follow through the film are likeable enough for there to be a hint of peril believable enough to keep things moving. There’s nothing particularly new going on in the characterisations (there’s the loser comic relief, the outcast, the skeptic and the last girl), and while there’s meant to be some attempt at a discussion of racist attitudes in small-town USA, it doesn’t really feel like it comes to much at all beyond simply depicting some racism.
Scary Stories‘s biggest issue though is its rating; it feels like it wanted to be a film for teenagers not yet ready for something as full-on as something like, say, IT, but the 15 certificate means that it’s out of reach of an audience that might have appreciated it better.
Unfortunately, Ovredal et al failed to hit the right marks here, and as a result, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark feels like a film made for nobody. Maybe it’ll fare better once the film hits DVDs and on-demand.
So that’s my quick roundup for the straggling films I didn’t get to review fully last month, and now it’s time to gear up for a surprisingly full September. I’ll be back at full strength with reviews and articles for the rest of the year, and keep your eyes peeled for some special coverage over a certain something at the beginning of October…