Monday, 16 July 2018

Incredibles 2

When the original Incredibles movie was released way back in 2004, I could never take to it with that palpable sense of giddy excitement I had for the great Pixar films of the nineties, such as the first two Toy Story’s and my favourite, 1998’s A Bug’s Life – which is odd considering I love the spy and superhero genres so ardently in all their forms. Perhaps it was because we were encapsulated within the innocence of the pre-smartphone, pre-superhero Cinematic Universe eras, where Marvel and DC’s many sequels and reboots were definitely out there, but hadn’t quite yet become the ever-present, blockbusting leviathans they are today.  If anything, rather than counting in this follow-up’s favour as it should, I felt it worked against it. I know I’m in a small minority here – Incredibles 2 has beaten Frozen to become the highest-grossing animation of all-time in the U.S. domestically, and will win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2019. Live-action superheroes, particularly under the directorial potency of Nolan, Wheedon and Raimi, have raised the crime-fighting bar so extremely high, that this just seems slightly dated. But that’s certainly not to say it doesn’t prove exhilarating - even more elaborate than the first.The animation does look absolutely stunning, even more so in 3D – glossy, textual and tactile. Particular highlights include Holly Hunter’s Elastagirl averting a speeding monorail from catastrophe, a timely feminist sub-plot which sees her take the reigns while Mr. Incredible has to take care of the three children, and the return of the diminutive, bespectacled designer Edna Mode, based on legendary costume designer Edith Head. The design itself is brilliant: retro-cityscapes and vehicles that have a sophisticated elegance. As before, I thought it was most reminiscent of Spy Kids, or a project Robert Zemeckis could’ve directed. The visuals are better than the plot: the villainy could’ve been pushed a lot further – and was so intriguing: the public being consumed by technology, under the spell of the Screenslaver – does anybody really use the phrase screen-saver anymore?Katherine Keener’s character is an absolute dopple-ganger for Tina Fey’s Roxanne Ritchie in the film that was very much the DreamWorks’ equivalent; 2010’s Megamind.I just wish it’d played with the form far more. The humour relies predominantly on slapstick, lacking much of the self-referenciality so charming in those earlier Pixar films.  Composer of the moment Michael Giacchino infuses his trademark hyper-frenetic jollity with the secrecy of espionage with John Barry flair.Really enjoyable, but Megamind definitely has the edge for me. 

 Rating: * * * 

Oceans 8

When Steven Soderbergh made the heist-caper Ocean’s trilogy, they had an A-List starry cast, (George Clooney, Brad Pitt etc), a tongue-in-cheek tone which never took itself too seriously, and a slick cinematographic aesthetic.   Now, there’s an all-female reboot – with inevitable comparisons to these originals, as well as timely sensibilities with the advent of the Me Too/Time’s Up movements. These conversations are hugely important. Occasionally though, the publicity surrounding a film, is so politically charged around this current age of topical controversy, that the issues overshadow the entertainment value and artistry of the film itself. Again, it’s such an impressive ensemble cast in its own right - surely we can move past the fact they’re all women? These changes: gender equality, inclusion, diversity - should’ve always been the case, should happen already, subconsciously – and shouldn’t be such a surprise.  Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, sister of Clooney’s apparently deceased Danny, though the details are unexplained. (There’s a photograph of him, but it would’ve been a clever twist to have him briefly appear).  Recently released from prison, she’s another con-artist who’s soon absconding from perfume counters and luxury suites, to pull-off her greatest trick yet: Manhattan’s annual Met Ball’s multi-million-dollar diamonds…
 The majority of performances are great, particularly Anne Hathaway playing spoilt, mimicking, hysterical materialism to the hilt as Daphne Kluger, a Hollywood star and socialite who’ll be wearing the diamonds in question. Helena Bonham-Carter suits her role as a down-on-her-luck designer – all incredulous eccentricity and elaborate hats. Cate Blanchett’s an absolutely magnetic, utterly unique presence on-screen, but here she’s the wise stoic, not given a lot to do beyond sport a blonde bob and no-nonsense attitude, while Rhianna’s stuck behind a laptop. The fantastic Sarah Paulson’s equally underserved. Bullock chooses an understated delivery: it’s a far subtler performance, compared to her broader roles.   It’s glossy, glamourous fun, but the trailer markets it as far more of a comedy. It could’ve been much funnier – I wish the screenplay shared the same sparkle as the dresses. 
The Met Ball sequence itself – a farcical mixture of split-screens, jazzy Daniel Pemberton score, food poisoning and flurry of celebrity cameos, is the apex of a venture with plenty of style, but lacking laughs, structure and pathos.
Rating: * * * 

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Incredibly, it’s twenty-five years since Steven Spielberg’s ground-breaking original Jurassic Park, not only proved that dinosaurs ruled multiplexes, but quite literally revolutionised the cinematic medium technologically.
Now, this nostalgic, diluted fifth instalment in the franchise, is the sequel to the rather mixed, entertainingly lightweight 2015 reboot: Jurassic World. Directed by J.A. Bayona, it’s very much a film of two halves. The first, sees the titular park closed. With the tourists gone, the all-important creatures remain, with the island’s latest enemy bubbling up: a volcano attempting to erupt at any moment…
There’s a plethora of bravura action-set pieces. Boiling lava making its insidious approach, a relentless stampede, deep-sea disaster as a gyrosphere tumbles into the ocean – all particular highlights. I’m the first person to love CGI spectacle, but here, the more this cataclysmic panoply is foregrounded, almost the less interesting it becomes. Plus, the CGI doesn’t quite have the same impact as the animatronics did in Spielberg’s original two. Those films encapsulated a streamlined simplicity of structure, and palpable sense of tense, threatening menace – which just can’t be replicated.
Thank goodness then, for Chris Pratt as Owen Grady. He’s an actor of such immense charm, charisma, a fantastically reliable action protagonist and of course has very funny comic timing. His vital moments of humour add some much-needed levity. He remains my favourite element of the film – as he was in Infinity War. There’s still a sparky connection between him and Bryce Dallas-Howard’s Claire, even if her expressions appear disinterestedly jaded – and once again she’s given so little to do when compared with pro-active Laura Dern or Julianne Moore.
I really liked the myriad of subtle references to Jurassic Park’s original milieu – toe-tapping claws, upturned cars, a portrait of Lord Attenborough’s John Hammond, a cane with the amber solidified inside. Prolific composer Michael Giacchino, cleverly uses cues from John Williams’s wonderful themes – although these could’ve been pushed further. As could Jeff Goldblum’s much-publicised return – he’s only in it for two minutes.
 The second half, functions more successfully as a haunted-house thriller. I enjoyed the schlockier ‘It’s behind you!’ moments, but the plotting is often convenient – (where did that dinosaur come from?)
Hopefully, this more contained approach continues with the inevitable sixth chapter.

Rating: * * * 

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

There’s been a lot of scepticism surrounding this latest spin-off from the Star Wars universe. It had a famously troubled production, with original directors (The Lego Movie’s Chris Miller and Phil Lord), effectively ‘let go’ by the studio well into the shoot, over creative differences. Reportedly, the duo wanted a tone closer to the zippy self-referentiality of the Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise, whereas Lucasfilm were aiming for a nostalgic feel, more in-keeping with the original Star Wars trilogy.
  Veteran director Ron Howard was brought in, and apparently shot around 70% of the finished film - but the joins aren’t noticeable at all.
It’s a fresh, funny, very exciting addition to the lore of the canon, that’s an extremely entertaining adventure in its own right, but also pays homage to the spirit of the earlier instalments. This is particularly evident in John Powell’s score - listen carefully, and there’s a few reprises of John’s Williams’s triumphant theme!
  It obtains the right balance between being old-fashioned in its almost Western-esque sensibilities, while also telling us the humble origins story of one of the most iconic, best loved characters in the franchise: Harrison Ford’s Han Solo.
  Alden Ehrenreich (hilarious in the Coen Bros. Hail Caesar) steps into those swaggering shoes - and he handles it terrifically, with the perfect mix of smooth charm and edgy recklessness. He doesn’t need to copy Ford’s grouchy cynicism, but captures just enough of the essence of Han’s slightly morally unorthodox methodology - plans that seem risky but always win the day - to definitely convince us.
  There’s plenty of dazzling special effects and energetic set-pieces -  chases on speeders, trains and the Millennium Falcon. There’s also an impressive supporting cast: Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Han’s mysterious love interest, Thandie Newton as no-nosense trooper Val, cute little co-pilot Rio - and a brilliant villain in Paul Bettany’s Dryden, brandishing red laser-boomerangs. There’s a huge surprise at the end too, but I won’t give it away!

Rating: * * * *

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Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

Never before has a Marvel superhero movie been more hotly anticipated, either by the in-built fan-base - or occasional admirers alike, than Avengers: Infinity War. This is the much hinted-at culmination of the now 10-years standing MCU - that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe to the uninitiated. A unique bringing together of the vast majority of a lively assortment of Marvel characters - for the very first time.
The titular Avengers - Robert Downey Jr.’s fan favourite, Iron Man (his fast-talking cynicism’s wearing a little thin), straight-laced stoicism from Chris Evans’ patriotic Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s hammer-wielding Thor, Mark Ruffalo’s ‘smashing’ interpretation of The Hulk, and Scarlett Johansson’s slinky but lethally athletic Black Widow - finally team-up with that brilliant rag-tag bunch: The Guardians Of The Galaxy.
  I have to be extremely careful not to give away any plot spoilers - so much so that the Twittersphere goes into meltdown. This leviathan installment, sees them collaborate in their inimitably unconventional style, to battle Josh Brolin - (in impressively expressive motion-capture) - as relentlessly sadistic, giant purple warlord Thanos…
The customary, trademark zippy dialogue, sees characters clash, bouncing off each-other as wonderfully as ever, meaning the vital element of occasional blasts of humour, is mixed in amongst all the action spectacle.
 The hype’s justified - this is an extremely entertaining piece of mainstream block - or rather ‘Hulk-buster’ filmmaking, at its most ambitiously elaborate. The intricately delicate calibration, of balancing and intertwining over thirty superhero’s narrative arcs, is handled expertly by director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo.
 My favourite character is Star-Lord, played as hilariously as ever by Chris Pratt. A particular highlight, sees him compete with Thor to see whose voice is deeper, in a bid for ultimate masculinity: ‘He’s trying to copy me!’.
 As soon as I heard returning composer Alan Silvestri’s signature theme of celebratory, unashamedly heroic orchestral sweep soar - reaching its powerhouse crescendo - I was in my fan-boy element!
However, be warned: scenes setting up 2019’s fourth chapter, pack a sombrely emotional, deeply shocking punch…

Rating: * * *

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The Potato Peel-Pie Society

Based on the best-selling 2008 novel with the same elaborately unique name, this warm, charming film is a gentle tale combining community, wartime nostalgia and the power of literature - all in the picturesque setting of the idyllic Channel Islands.
  Flashing backwards and forwards between World War II and present-day 1946, it follows our protagonist, touring author Juliet Ashton (another impressive performance from Cinderella and Darkest Hour’s Lily James), who’s written a letter by a member of the secret society of the title. It’s a secret, because this small population are living under the unrelenting grip of German occupation, and form the club as a way to seek solace in reading - away from the horror of war. Their story of triumph over adversity strikes a chord with reporter Juliet, who wants to write an article about them. As she delves deeper, she discovers tragic secrets which no one must ever know, as well as passions of her own…
  Originally, Kenneth Branagh was set to direct this adaptation, with Kate Winslet cast in the lead role. However, this never materialised, after that version of the production stalled.
  Mike Newell was hired, the veteran director behind such eclectic hits as Four Weddings, Johnny Depp gangster thriller Donnie Brasco and one of the best Harry Potter films - The Goblet Of Fire.
  Some artistic liberties have been made. The letter-writing format of the novel remains only partially intact - the film it’s most reminiscent of is 2017’s Their Finest starring Gemma Arterton, another wartime-set moral-booster with a similar mixture of warmth, courage and crucially the art of correspondence - with a strong female at its centre.
There are some moments of humour, but this isn’t strictly a comedy. Although World War II is only cursorily shown, in favour of foregrounding cosiness, some moments are very moving. This is thanks to an outstanding performance from Penelope Wilton as a frosty but heartbroken widower Amelia. There’s strong support too from Tom Courtenay, and Scream Queens’ Glen Powell as an American fiancĂ©e.
Fans of the source material should enjoy it, preferably without a slice of apparently revolting Potato Peel-Pie!

Rating: * * *

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Friday, 9 February 2018

The Post

Steven Spielberg had the shortest production schedule of his career, in which to shoot this brilliant political thriller, which tells the true story of The Washington Post’s discovery of the infamous ‘Pentagon Papers’ - an extensive document detailing how the US. Government had been lying about its success rate in the ongoing Vietnam War.
  It’s set in 1971, at the height of the highly controversial Nixon administration - and demonstrates just how systemic the levels of corruption and collusion were. Its themes of media plurality, questionable authenticity and gender inequality, are made doubly fascinating and ever more presciently topical - in a way they were never expected to - with our current political climate of desensitisation in the era of so-called ‘fake news’, abuses of power and the pay-gap.
 It stars Meryl Streep as the head of The Washington Post, Kay Graham. Strong, vulnerable and with an indeterminable inner-steel, she's forced to make the toughest of choices, in a profession dominated by men.
It’s another absolutely fantastic (and twenty-first Oscar-nominated) performance by Streep: her expert timing, delivery and brilliant use of pauses ensure that her face is a continual tapestry of emotion.
 Tom Hanks also brings a certain robustness to Ben Bradlee, the newspaperman who, in one pivotal exchange, reiterates to Graham just how critical the situation is: ‘What’re you going to do - Mrs. Graham?…’.
 With fantastic pacing, urgency and an eye for every conceivable detail, Spielberg succeeds in making another of his powerfully polemic, more politic films, which instead of feeling heavily weighed down by talky exposition, is executed in thoroughly entertaining and totally gripping style - just as he did with the equally glorious Lincoln, which chronicled another momentous milestone in human history.
Cinematographer Janusz Kamanski and editor Michael Kahn, ratchet up the tension in one central sequence in particular, where all parties are on ends of telephones having to make the pivotal decision of whether or not to publish the papers. The camera does a birds-eye 360-degree chandelier swoop around the room…
John Williams’s score, also encapsulates the icy chill of paranoia and covert secrecy…

Rating: * * * *

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

TAPestries 2018 - The Arden

TAPestries 2018 Double-Bill Review for The Arden - James Burgess - 29.1.18.

Show One - ‘Two By Ten’.

Based on the play ‘Two’ set in the eighties by Jim Cartwright, which tells of the everyday comings and goings inside an ordinary, working class, northern pub, this is a contemporary retelling with ten performers, each acting as one of the characters - mostly in pairs - hence the title. There’s the landlord and landlady (where everyday’s a secret struggle - hidden out of view of the customers), the long-suffering classic couple Moth and Maudie, who are forever trying to take that next step. This is heard entirely in mime, with a voice-track over the top, making it all the more both innovative and inventive.
  The performers gel incredibly well as a company, working together seamlessly. They’re incredibly effective in their approach to minimalistic staging, choosing only to use masking tape to signify any sets or props - such as tables, chairs and the bar area. In fact, a live feed is also used to show the actuality and humdrum of a typical local pub.
  Other highlights include the pub regular of the elderly lady character,  accidentally selecting the wrong track on the jukebox, revealing a side to herself that’s as far away from an old lady as you can imagine, and a final very touching scene between the landlord and landlady - revealing the true depths of their tragedy.
  The fourth wall is frequently and wonderfully broken, and there’s excellent use of much audience participation too. It’s a prime example of what can fundamentally be achieved, with just actors and a space - drawing upon Peter Brook’s famous words to the audience, as to what constitutes as theatre: ‘All we need are me, you, and some chairs - and we have our scene’…

Show Two - ‘Remembering Blue Roses’.

Another contemporary reworking of an entirely different kind, ‘Remembering Blue Roses’ is a striking alternative version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, still retains the original’s themes of lost love and the limitations of conformity.
As always with Williams’s work, his protagonists are often flawed with desperation. This is the case with the character of Laura, torn between the tradition of a stringent family upbringing, and the promise of an adventurous new life with her long lost love…
A study in second chances and unrequited feelings, it uses simple, very effective techniques (namely subtle blue lighting and chorus), which display an almost spiritual bridge, between the worlds of fantasy and reality. Played at times as if life we a perpetual recording on a never-ending loop, it examines how life can be changed, remoulded and deconstructed through regret, choice, and different outcomes to our circumstance. This is achieved through the use of repetition, superb performances of stock characters (the conflicted girl, the very earnest, sincere boy, verses the domesticity of the disciplinarian mother), and a particularly clever motif, featuring the haunting use of the soundtrack: ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’. A profound, very original adaptation, with themes that are as universal as they are timeless.