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.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Theatre Review

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Review (Storyhouse, Chester) - 8th July 2017.

As part of its inaugural season of four plays, with the same cast and crew performing two each - Storyhouse’s brand-new theatre complex and its company, produces a completely new, fresh and vibrant version of Shakespeare’s beloved, romantic classic of magic, couples and comic misunderstanding!
  Director Alex Clifton’s production is a bold, brilliant, instantly accessible interpretation of this timeless fairytale. It strikes the perfect balance between retaining all the classical, traditional elements of original structure: The interlinking narrative strands of the two couples, the players, the fairy kingdom), whilst also subtly adding a contemporary edge.
 For example, the very smart, topical casting choice has been made, to make Lysander a female as oppossed to a male - without that change ever being too heavy-handed, or overwhelming the overall story.
 The effectiveness of the set-design lies in its simplicity: a canopy of fairground-style lightbulbs and several props, allow much of the other magic to exist in the imagination of the audience.
  The cast are universally excellent. In particular, Natalie Grady is hilarious as Quince, the director of: ‘the play within the play’. The character’s first name was Peter in Shakespeare’s original text, however another refreshing update means that she’s now called Petra - as Grady’s unforgettable characterisation repeatedly reminds us!
  Fred Lancaster is also brilliant as a sharp, sophisticated, protective Demetrius, pursuing his one true love, but falling under the notoriously convoluted magic spell of the kingdom. Anne Odeke is a jolly, joyous Titania who revels in extravagance. Emily Johnstone is appropriately exasperated as the disparaging Helena, and Vanessa Schofield brings a purity of spirit to the innocence of Hermia. The two couples increasingly complicated confrontations are masterful!
  The performance which the players (Nick Bottom the weaver etc) put on at the end, for the Duke Theseus’s engagement, is extremely funny, complete with Alex McGonagle’s Francis Flute raising his voice a few octaves to play Thisbe, and Petra Quince acting as a prompt, correcting her cast via a karaoke-style microphone!
  The use of music is also especially inventive, with Puck’s final soliloquy being turned into a song and dance, lending the finale a real sense of a party atmosphere - one to which the audience all feel invited!

Rating: * * * *

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Friday, 8 September 2017

The Limehouse Golem

The Limehouse Golem, Certificate 15, 109 mins, Lionsgate.

Set within the notoriously ominous world of Victorian-era London - cobbled moonlit back-streets rife with playwrights, ‘women of the town’ and a clutch of horrific serial-killings for good measure, this is a terrific, puzzle-solver of a very traditional murder-mystery - in the most thrillingly entertaining sense.
 A very classic, deliberately old fashioned who-dunnit rather than horror, its economical, gripping adaptation from the Peter Ackroyd novel, is given a subtly contemporary edge, by prolifically versatile screenwriter Jane Goldman: (Stardust, X-Men: First Class, and the fantastically inventive Kingsman and its forthcoming sequel).
  The opening shot is extremely bold and striking: The ghost-white face of famed compare Dan Lino (a terrific Douglas Booth), directly, simultaneously addressing both the unsuspectingly captivated audience inside the theatre - and us, the equally enthralled, almost complicit audience, safe within the confines of the cinema - declaring: ‘Let us begin, my friends - at the end…Whose is the name of fear on every Londoner’s lips?’… Cue the gloriously lacerating string crescendo, in a score every bit as doom-laden and tightly-wound as the never-gratuitous violence.
  That name is the infamous Limehouse Golem: a relentless, blade-wielding, seemingly arbitrary multiple-murderer, pre-dating Jack The Ripper.
  Drafted in to investigate is the straight-laced Inspector Kildare, a role originally planned for the absolutely seminal, much-missed Alan Rickman, played brilliantly by Bill Nighy, a more serious role for him - he still brings that trademark twinkle, charm and expert timing. (Similarly, with his unmistakable tones and slow, sinister delivery, I’m certain Rickman would’ve been perfect).
Booth steals the show as a charismatic and singing Lino, the ever-excellent Daniel Mays is soulful as the policeman, and Olivia Cooke has real integrity as Elizabeth.
  It has echoes of the Ripper chronicle From Hell, or Sleepy Hollow (both starring Johnny Depp), Agatha Christie, and Nolan’s The Prestige. The structure and cinematography, perfectly capture playing cleverly with flashback, perspective and identity - exploring notions of performance, theatricality and deception. ‘We all wear pantomime masks - do we not?’ The glow, vibrancy and excessive extravagance of the music-hall scene, is juxtaposed with the icy chill of murder outside. The final twist is shocking and ingenious - my jaw dropped to the floor!…

Rating: * * * * *

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Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower - 97 mins. Approx, Cert: 12A- Sony / Columbia / Imagine Entertainment.

After decades of being in the production doldrums, die-hard fans of Stephen King’s fabled chronicles have been building up to the first cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower with white-hot levels of anticipation. King is his own king of the chiller: author of such seminal standalone classics as The Shining & Carrie as well as the equally hyped, forthcoming clown-chimera IT - (in cinemas Friday 8th September), he’s in the doomy midst of somewhat of a late-career reconnaissance.  
  Penning the adaptation is screenwriter Akiva Goldsman; a writer of striking visual aplomb: nineties Batman’s Forever & Robin, I Robot, I Am Legend, and more recently the much-misunderstood A New York Winter’s Tale.
  It’s also produced by Ron Howard’s company; another nineties powerhouse: Imagine Entertainment.
  It’s entertaining, and has stylish cinematographic touches of slow-motion, speed-ramped editing (my screening wasn’t in 3D - but I’m glad the motif of so-called ‘bullet-time’ makes a return, even if the impact of those techniques is far more muted than I was expected.
  Perfectly enjoyable it may be, but in a commercially inconsistent summer of a very hyped, well-publicised slate of blockbusters: (Baywatch, Ghost In The Shell, even Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky unexpectedly flopped in the U.S.) - Tower may suffer from the fact it could’ve been far more daring, sharper and scarier than it is - instead of a very muddled confection.
  It’s Taylor Hackford’s Devil’s Advocate, (nowhere near as gripping or edgy), mixed unevenly with more family-orientated versions of Jumanji or Zathura. King purists may be doubly disappointed, not only by vast liberties taken with the source material, but also by rushed pacing, easy plotting choices made for convenience, and safe sanitisation of shocks in favour of securing a 12A audience - as opposed to making it darker and riskier.
  Both Matthew McConaughey (terrific; stealing the show with a drawling malevolence as Walter - The Man In Black) and Idris Elba (dependably stoic), subtly and skilfully make the delivery of Goldsman’s often complex script look effortless. But the dialogue is so needlessly didactic: ‘He has the boy! We must save him / I know!’. But I hope to see more, and the effects are impressive.

Rating: * * *

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