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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Family Day

‘Family Day’. - Becca Phillipson - James Burgess - 2.9.17.

This is a very sweet-natured, charming short-film from the multi-talented Becca Phillipson. A refreshing, earnest ‘dramedy’ - obtaining the correct balance of a mixture of drama and comedy, Family Day is set within the limiting confines of a prison.
  But what is all the more surprising is that aside from the dark and gritting tones that have become customary - particularly on television - in the ilk of Bad Girls or The Accused - this feels much lighter. It’s lighthearted, without ever feeling too frothy or insubstantial.
  These are people who - prisoner and visitor - both still strive for fulfilment and aspiration, and, without giving to much away - also don’t let authority prohibit a little liberated freedom…
  Exactly what that freedom entails is again executed very deftly, without ever seeming didactic or over-sentimentalized. This is achieved through such clever use of slow-motion (again, never too earnest or over-the-top) and a yearning score that’s understated - matching the action perfectly.
  These themes are well-observed and timely, but the camaraderie of the inmates is still very present, even in the face of obvious adversity.
  The performances are all appropriately conversational and natural, and on what must have been shoe-string money and resources - a crisp, deeply polished project has been made. I wish there were more short-films of this sheer quality that were both this original, as well as  fundamentally entertaining - whilst also being subtly undercut with offering an acute social comment.

Rating: * * * *

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Emoji Movie Review

The Emoji Movie, Certificate: U, 87 mins, Sony Pictures Animation.

The majority of 2017’s been a very dicey year for animation. Sing was absolutely excellent: Stunningly animated, stirringly plotted, and had universally well-judged performances and fantastic soundtrack choices.
  But alas, the real comedic purple-patch of smarts in Moana, Trolls and Zootropolis wasn’t to last.
  Despecible Me 3 was yet another noisy test of patience, Cars 3 trod more retread in narrative than any tread generated by those iconic red and black tyres - and I thought the current shameless endorsement of mega-hit Lego conversions (Lego Movie, Lego Batman, and forthcoming Ninjago) couldn’t descend into becoming any more cynical…
  However, it seems I’ve been franchising under a pixelated mis‘app’rehension. Deliberately arriving just in time for the summer holidays, is the trudging Emoji Movie. Those horribly addictive squares, faces and symbols of pointless vacuousness that occupy and manipulate our every single second, now it seems occupy and manipulate the multiplexes.
  Pixar made what was reportedly one of their in 2015: Inside Out, a Technicolour dreamscape of a little girl’s subconscious scene through the corporate prism of emotion. Personally I found it to be drawn-out and needlessly over-sentimentalised.
  At least this - tedious and product-placed to within a data-stream of its digitally collated life though it is - feels lighter in tone.
  Although never in its erratic pacing, as we dawdle with Gene (voiced with pep by TJ Miller), a ‘meh’ Emoji who feels he’s lost his identity. Though how he’ll find it in this not-at-all surprisingly unfunny mess which features a knight of the realm (Sir Patrick Stewart), voicing virtual excrement - I’ll luckily never know.
  Some performances however are fantastic. It’s completely stolen by the Bridesmaids character who had similar toileting emergencies of her own - Maya Rudolph - as a great villain. Smiler is a face with an unrelentingly eternal grin and a taste for metal instruments like the dentist in Marathon Man. She deletes futile emojis…
The vast range of their assortment, could’ve been pushed far more, with Ice-Cream on every poster; barely getting a line. The voice cast are great, including Christina Aguleria, doing a song too, but none of the young audience laughed! 

Rating: * * 

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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

England Is Mine

England Is Mine - Certificate 15, 94 mins, Entertainment One / Hanway Films.

Starring: Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown-Findley, Graeme Hawley, Adam Lawrence, Finney Cassidy, Simone Kirby and Laurie Kynaston.

When Control, the audacious, starkly black-and-white, uncompromisingly fragmented account of Joy Division front-man Ian Curtis; proved to be the refreshing British sleeper-hit of 2007, this was thanks largely to Sam Riley’s completely transcendent performance as Curtis.
  That film, not only firmly established Riley (Maleficent, the BBC’s brilliant SS-GB, and Jack Kerouac in Walter Sallis’s brilliantly observed On The Road) as one of the most excellent, unique screen-presences of any generation, but it was also produced by Orian Williams.
  Williams, also produces England Is Mine, a much-anticipated biopic of another similarly enigmatic and troubled iconoclast - the eponymous Morrisey.
  Jack Lowden stars as the drably disparaging teenager. Director Mark Gill firmly posits Morrisey as an outcast, an idiosyncratic misfit, longing silently to break free from seventies socialism and the omnipresent orange of kitchen wallpaper and menial domesticity.
  Stuck in a life unfulfilled by paper-pushing and a total lack of pro-active drive, the equally direction-less, somewhat meandering structure of the film (although maybe that was the meta-intention; of form mirroring content to reflect his conflicted state of mind), - is represented from Morrisey’s perspective - through which, we meet an array of characters who’re intermittant throughout his adolescence in seventies Manchester.
  These include some excellent performances from Coronation Street’s serial killing English teacher John Stape - Graeme Hawley - brilliant as Morrisey’s by-the-book but sympathetic and dryly funny boss.
  The film’s casting is also an excellent showcase for breakthrough talent: Finney Cassidy (brother of Tomorrowland’s Raffey) adds greatly effortless comic levity as one of Morrisey’s inescapably jeering co-workers. Adam Lawrence is superb as Billy - by turns mentor, then peer, then rival.
  Speaking of stars on the rise, it’s of great testament to Jack Lowden that he is in two of the years most eagerly awaited historical accounts - both released within a fortnight of each-other: this, as well as Collins, a courageous pilot in Christopher Nolan’s blistering Dunkirk - and he was also very impressive in a pivotal role in another of 2017’s very best and underrated of films and third true-life accounts: Denial - with Rachel Weisz as a holocaust professor. He’s obviously drawn to true-life projects; look out for him as Lord Darnley in the Donmar Warehouse theatre’s artistic director Josie Rourke’s film of Mary Queen Of Scots.
  The screenplay, never quite allows Lowden to really obtain the ambiguous, lost heart of the reluctant protagonist, but with a body of work as eclectic as that behind him, the film is surely in the running for the double BAFTA-nomination of the public-voted Rising Star for Lowden, as well as Best British film (just as Riley and Control did before it). Not all of the dialogue or pacing convinces, and oddly, all but two of Morrisey’s monotone songs are deliberately absent - but it’s a fascinating interpretation of an illusive talent.

Rating: * * *

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Monday, 31 July 2017

Dunkirk Review

Dunkirk - 12A, 106 Mins, Warner Bros/Syncopy.

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Billy Howle, Sir Micheal Caine, and Sir Mark Rylance.

Christopher Nolan’s use of minimal GCI, no green/blue-screen, 70mm film as opposed to digital, all on gargantuan IMAX cameras - always achieves an epic scale; glossy, crisp, striking authenticity which is now the hallmark of his work - and instantly recognisable.
  Even when he’s operating within the most elaborate narratological perametres: memory (Memento), murder (Insomnia), magic (The Prestige), seminal, heroic sagas (The Dark Knight Trilogy), the human subconscious (Inception), or Interstellar: Structure, tone, time, and perspective, are either foregrounded or subverted - without ever being overshadowed by the innovative techniques implemented.
  In many ways, Dunkirk, is his most avuncular work: stripped-down, back-to-basics, viscerally intense, extremely immersive and authentic - his most conventional, risky, and both utterly subjective and objective, simultainiously - without ever losing that customary quality of being superbly mounted and staged.
  As a writer, his polished screenplay remains as knowingly sparse and cut-to-the-quick as ever. Nolan’s stated his intention was to make a suspenseful survival story - not a war film.
  Instead, Nolan frames a stunningly realised technical achievement of placing the audience on those fateful dunes, in the frenetic cockpit, or on a submerging ship - with land, air and sea each being represented through their increasingly tense timelines - to absolutely stunning effect.
  All performances are excellent. Fionn Whitehead infuses integrity as the lead soldier, the much-hyped casting of a solid Harry Styles completes the trio; it’s Aneurin Barnard’s almost mute Gibson, who really stands out. Barnard, has such a depth of soulful intensity of pathos in his eyes - (ITV’s Cilla, and BBC’s brilliant SS-GB).
  Tom Glynn-Carney is especially gripping as Peter, the eldest son of the unassuming Mr. Dawson (subtly, exceptionally played by the king of humble humility in acting classicism: Mark Rylance). Rylance may end up fighting it out with a precise Kenneth Branagh, or conflicted PTSD soldier Cillian Murphy for Supporting Actor accolades.
  As should Hoyte Van Hoytema’s peerless cinematography. Blistering aerial set-pieces, mean real spitfires fill the screen, with Tom Hardy’s pilot adding gravitas as always.
Image result for dunkirk landscape poster  This is all enhanced tenfold, by Hans Zimmer’s inimitably propulsive, perpetual thrum of score; ratcheting up the tension even further. Fantastic, extremely slickly assured, profoundly emotionally prescient - a leviathan piece of bravura filmmaking. 

Rating: * * * * *

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