The Flying Scotsman

Movie biographies often feel like cinematic versions of karaoke.  All of the elements are in place with only the performer required to impersonate their subject. A stock standard formula seems at play when re-telling a true story - the struggle for acceptance with the ultimate inspiring finale that pleases the masses.  Any biography that purports to get inside the mind of their subject is dubious at best with no way of knowing their true thoughts.  The Flying Scotsman marks off the requisite points without adding anything new to the tiresome genre.
Jonny Lee Miller stars as Graeme Obree, a world cycling champion known as The Flying Scotsman.  In the early 1990s he became a two time world racing champion, whilst battling depression and the machinations of racing organisers.  Designing his own bike, Obree’s determination to beat the odds became an inspiration for his Scottish homeland.  With the support of his friend Malky (Billy Boyd), his wife and a kindly pastor (Brian Cox), Obree’s intense passion for his sport made him a true champion.
It’s strange watching a story about a passionate sportsman in such a dispassionate film.  The lethargic direction and derivative plotting detract from what should have been a tension filled movie.  Events about Obree’s life are skimmed over with the use of ’spinning headlines’ adding to the general clichés.  As the violins reach a musical fever pitch so does the films’ over-earnestness.  The ham fisted story takes seemingly forever to get to the point, with important events that should be full of excitement being anticlimactic. By taking someone’s unique story and applying the biographical movie formula it becomes a bland nothing film.
Despite the crudely plotted screenplay the movie does have some good points.  The racing scenes are well done - as they should be - with the visual trickery to displace time being interesting.  The performances generally are quite good, with Lee Miller giving his all in an energetic role.  Steven Berkoff’s role as a judge provides unintentional amusement.  Berkoff is not usually known for his acting restraint, and is at his hammy best playing the pantomime style villain.  Unfortunately the cinematography gives proceedings an enclosed feel, ignoring the wonderful Scottish scenery.
There’s a good story to be told of Obree’s efforts, but The Flying Scotsman isn’t it.  The plodding script and low key direction manage to turn Obree’s great triumphs into an underwhelming dull vehicle. 
Rating out of 10:   3

Black Snake Moan

On a steamy afternoon in the deep South, Rae (Christina Ricci) farewells her army bound boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake).  Lost without her love, Rae seeks solace in the arms of the male townsfolk.  After one of her trysts turns nasty, Rae is left for dead on a roadside.  The next day she is discovered by Lazarus (Samuel L Jackson), a deeply religious man who is bitter over a recent marriage break-up.  Seeing that the vampish Rae needs divine redemption, Lazarus chains her to his radiator hoping to purify her wicked lusty ways.
Black Snake Moan opens as a blues guitarist explains the idea behind the blues genre and how it affects people.  Lazarus, a former blues player, finds the music has died within him due to past failures.  Finding Rae, he sees an opportunity to repair their emotionally fractured lives.  With his very unorthodox method of chaining, he wants to see how keen she is to break free of her emotional constraints.  The aptly named Lazarus attempts to resurrect their lives, gaining strength to move forward.
This very offbeat film has the look and feel of a lurid 1970s exploitation flick where anything can and does happen.  The initially kinky premise of a girl in chains makes way for a quirky tale that reveals genuine soul. The audience engagement is increased by Craig Brewer’s direction which slowly draws out the hidden facets of his characters.  Sometimes the rather tacky nature of the script shines through, but the central performances are never less than compelling.  It does become odd that someone doesn’t come to rescue Rae from her predicament, adding to the strange atmosphere.
The excellent performances equally contribute to a fascinating screenplay.  Jackson seems to be playing a manic Professor Higgins to Ricci’s trampy version of Eliza Doolittle, with both actors working well together.   In educating and healing each other, both characters come up with some very surprising results.  Justin Timberlake shows good talent and remarkable range in a rare foray away from the microphone.  Making sure things don’t descend too much into tawdry melodrama, the rest of the cast play the sublime script to the hilt.
Black Snake Moan provides a refreshingly unusual antidote to the commercialised dreck that passes for movie entertainment these days.  The ace is the element of surprise - and there are plenty of unexpected turns.  Not everyone’s jug of moonshine perhaps, this twisted film plays out like a visual version of a blues song with an enthusiastic rhythm.
Rating out of 10:  8 
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