Monday, 24 June 2019

Stage: Head on a platter

conceived, directed, choreographed by Carmine De Amicis, Harriet Waghorn
music Phillip O'Meara
with Carmine De Amicis, Fabio Dolce, Harriet Waghorn, Jade Woodhouse, Mikey Sluman, Victoria Marsh
Cockpit Theatre, London, 23.Jun.19 • National Tour, 24.May-30.Jun.19

Originally published in 1891, Oscar Wilde's play Salomé is based on the biblical account of King Herod, his step-daughter Salomé and their fateful encounter with the Jewish prophet Jokanaan, aka John the Baptist. Edifice Dance Theatre strips this back to its essentials as a collision between divinity, wealth and power. It's a strikingly powerful piece of work, beautifully staged and performed with a riveting sense of passion, energy and urgency.

Performed in the round on a stage strewn with mannequin parts around a central table, Jokanaan (De Amicis) deftly dances without hitting any of the pieces, expressing pure power and grace. He's followed by the increasingly annoyed Herod (Dolce), who is accompanied by his own three-piece orchestra (Woodhouse, Sluman, Marsh) as he dances stumbling through the set, arresting Johanaan like a jealous fanboy. Enter the spoiled princess Salomé (Waghorn), fending off the handsy admiration of her step-father. She's far more interested in the prisoner. But when he rebuffs her kiss, she turns back to Herod, agreeing to perform a dance for him if he grants her one grisly wish.

The production is deceptively simple, with a pulsing combination of light and music that focusses all of the attention on these three gifted dancers. Dolce has a smirking presence as the man who thinks he has all of the power, doing his little jazz moves and ordering people around. By contrast, De Amicis uses long lines and achingly languid shapes to convey Jakonaan's effortless connection with the divine. Between them, Waghorn brings astonishing strength, a forceful woman who knows what she wants and has every intention of getting it one way or another. The physicality between them is staggering, especially in the final sequence.

Yes, the way this story is told offers strong echoes of the Time's Up movement, plus an underlying comment on how the people who hold positions of power are often in it for what they can get rather than what they can offer. Watching the balance shift between these three people is riveting, especially at such close quarters with the performers interacting with the audience (Waghorn handed me her mask, and I felt a spray of sweat at one point). This is a fiercely inventive retelling of an iconic story that deserves to run and run.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Short Cuts: Death, love and rehab

Here are two Netflix films I caught up with this week, plus another film that hasn't had a UK release but is already streaming from the US...

Murder Mystery
dir Kyle Newacheck; scr James Vanderbilt
with Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Luke Evans, Terence Stamp, Dany Boon,Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, Luis Gerardo Mendez, David Walliams
19/US Netflix 1h37 **.

Let's be honest: you know you're in trouble when they can't even be bothered to give a movie a title. A bit of breezy entertainment, this energetic comedy is relentlessly dopey, but will just about do the trick when you want no mental stimulation whatsoever. It's about New York cop Nick (Sandler), who takes his frustrated wife Audrey (Aniston) on the European honeymoon he promised her 15 years ago, mainly to cover his continuing failure to pass his detective exam. On the plane she meets Viscount Charles (Evans), who invites them to Monaco for a weekend on a palatial yacht owned by his billionaire Uncle Malcolm (Stamp). The passengers are a who's who of characters from one of Audrey's mystery novels, so when Malcolm is stabbed with the bejewelled family dagger just before signing his new will, Nick steps in to help solve the crime. Of course, he immediately becomes the prime suspect.

The script plays with the stereotypes and genre cliches as the body count grows and the amusingly blustery Inspector Delacroix (Boon) takes the case. From here the writer and director lazily indulge in trite jokes, never creating a coherent plot or characters. Action moments are clumsy, and much of the humour falls flat. But there are witty gags here and there leading to the usual closed-room solution, which of course is followed by twists, turns and some random madcap action amid picturesque scenery. For an Adam Sandler comedy, this means that it's far above average. But by any other measure, this is a stumbling mess of a movie. Even so, it fills the time amiably enough. Aniston invests fully into the role with her enjoyably shrill comical energy. Her chemistry with Sandler even makes him seem almost funny.

Always Be My Maybe
dir Nahnatchka Khan
scr Randall Park, Ali Wong, Michael Golamco
with Ali Wong, Randall Park, James Saito, Michelle Buteau, Vivian Bang, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Dae Kim, Karan Soni, Charlyne Yi, Susan Park
19/US 1h41 ***.

This romantic comedy has a silly tone that makes it likeable, finding realistic edges to the characters that make them deeply engaging. It's thoroughly obvious where the film is heading, but the characters and story are both witty and involving, so it's never easy to predict how any scene is going to unravel. Sasha and Marcus (Wong and Park) are best buddies from childhood, then share a romantic moment in their teens, which leaves their friendship in an awkward place. Now in Los Angeles, Sasha is a celebrity chef with a hot restauranteur fiance (Kim), but he has just taken an extended job in India. So Sasha decides to start over as she goes to San Francisco to open a new branch. She soon runs into Marcus, who's living at home, working with his dad (Saito) and playing in an indie band. He also has a crazy girlfriend, Jenny (Bang). But Sasha and Marcus begin rekindling their friendship, and they know each other too well to let each other get away with any rubbish.

The dialog is snappy, often with an improvisational feel to it. Park and Wong have terrific chemistry, bouncing off each other with jaggedly perfect timing. Marcus' band plays smart-alecky pop-rap novelty songs that you'll want to download immediately. And there are zinger one-liners scattered through the script for each of the side characters ("I'm an LGBTQIA ally, so thank you for your service," says Soni, as Marcus' bandmate, to Buteau, as Sacha's lesbian assistant). Keanu Reeves' sequence, in which he plays himself as Sasha's new boyfriend, is simply hilarious, as he unapologetically pokes fun at the image people have of him. Thankfully, along with some pointed pastiche about new cuisine, the film also dips a little deeper into celebrity culture as the story develops. It's never provocative or surprising, but it's thoroughly enjoyable, keeping the audience laughing and sighing right to the end. And there are moments that make us hungry too.

The Beach Bum
dir-scr Harmony Korine
with Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Jimmy Buffett
19/US 1h35 **.

Matthew McConaughey is typecast as a loose-living stoner in this comedy by anarchic filmmaker Harmony Korine. He plays Moondog, a worry-free guy in Key West whose life is a series of hedonistic antics. Then he's called back to Miami to help his equally free-spirited wife Minnie (Fisher) with their 22-year-old daughter's (Owen) wedding. "I forgot how rich we were," Moondog says when he returns to their bayside mansion. His literary agent (Hill) berates him for throwing away his talent. So after a run-in with the law, Moondog checks into a year of court-ordered rehab, hoping he'll find the clarity to finally write his book. There he meets Flicker (Efron), a vaper who's equally irresponsible, so they escape and go on a crime spree.

Unsurprisingly, the film looks gorgeous, thanks to Benoit Debie's deep-hued cinematography, and it's accompanied by a superb collection of 1970s songs. Even so, the film feels like it was made in a marijuana-fuelled haze, full of wacky slapstick and broadly overplayed nuttiness, punctuated by McConaughey's piercing cackle. The film is mainly assembled from disconnected scenes of Moondog's aimless carousing and partying. Stinking rich, he hasn't a care in the world, so he never makes much sense. The open relationship between Moondog and Minnie is rather sweet, so a moment when the perpetually inebriated Moondog seems to feel a pang of jealousy feels downright false. Everyone talks about how his genius outweighs his bad behaviour, but there's little evidence of that. His best friends are his wife's lover (a mellow Snoop Dogg) and a disastrous dolphin tour guide (Lawrence). But aside from his general joie de vivre, there's nothing likeable about Moondog. So it's very difficult to celebrate him as a poetic hero rather than just a rich jerk who has had far more luck than he deserves. But then perhaps that's the vaguely political point Korine is making with this unexpectedly toothless romp.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Critical week: He's behind you!

It's been a busy week catching up with movies here in London. The biggest films were entries in decades-old franchises. Child's Play is a reboot, rather than sequel, updated to the artificial-intelligence era and starring Aubrey Plaza. Toy Story 4 tells another superbly engaging story, again bringing these indelible characters together with action and emotion. And Men in Black International attempts a fresh turn in the saga, with younger stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, rather too much digital nuttiness and an only OK plot.

Three small-screen movies will be covered in another blog entry: Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler reunite for the dopey Europe-set comedy whodunit Murder Mystery, Randall Park and Ali Wong star in the snappy-silly rom-com Always Be My Maybe, and Matthew McConaughey plays to type as the stoner title character in the somewhat unfocussed comedy The Beach Bum (out this week on VOD).

As for more arthouse fare, there was Joanna Hogg's new film The Souvenir, another exploration of British upper-class repression, starring Tilda Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, plus Tom Burke. All are excellent, and the film is deeply chilling. Swinging Safari is a wild and woolly Aussie 1970s-set comedy starring Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue and Radha Mitchell. It's a bit over-the-top and chaotic. The American-set British thriller Division 19 is set in a near-future society in which privacy is outlawed. It looks great but makes little sense. From South Africa, the musical Kanarie is a powerful exploration of bigotry and self-acceptance, as a young man goes through his mandatory military service as a member of a choir. From India, Unsaid is a dark drama about deep family secrets, powerfully well played. And the British documentary Are You Proud explores the Pride movement with an intriguingly critical eye.

Coming up this next week, we have Benedict Cumberbatch in The Current War, Alicia Vikander in Euphoria, Angus Macfadyen in Robert the Bruce, the Oscar-nominated drama Never Look Away, the French water polo comedy The Shiny Shrimps, the Indian drama Roobha, and the doc Southern Pride, among others....

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Critical Week: I need a place to hide away

I landed back in London last weekend and dove back into the thick of it, having missed several press screenings while I was travelling over the past few weeks. One of this summer's higher profile films, Danny Boyle's rom-com Yesterday has a simple premise (what if everyone forgot about the Beatles except for one guy - played by Himesh Patel, above with James Corden) and plays out as a loving ode to the greatest pop music of all time. It's also funny and romantic. On the plane, I caught up with Sebastian Lelio's Gloria Bell, his own sparky English-language remake starring the fabulous Julianne Moore as a rather too-glamorous middle-aged woman grappling with life, love and independence.

Off the beaten track, Being Frank is a quirky comedy starring Jim Gaffigan as a man whose teen son discovers he has two families. Surprisingly, he remains likeable through it all. Deep Murder is a pastiche whodunit set within a porn movie. It's very funny, nasty and not remotely sexy. The British independent film Bait is an earthy drama about fisherman clashing with tourists, shot gorgeously on grainy 16mm black and white film. A Season in France is a dark and involving French drama about asylum seekers that maintains a hopeful tone even when things get rather hopeless. And Bulbul Can Sing is a strikingly naturalistic drama from India about three young teens trying to be themselves in a constrictive rural setting.

Coming up, I have a very late catch-up with Men in Black: International, which opens tomorrow. It'll be a busy week, as I'm also seeing Toy Story 4, Aubrey Plaza in the reboot Child's Play, the Aussie comedy Swinging Safari with Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue, Joanna Hogg's acclaimed The Souvenir, dystopian British drama Division 19, the South African musical Kanarie, the refugee drama Amin, Asaf Kapadia's documentary Diego Maradona and the Pride-themed doc Are You Proud?

Friday, 7 June 2019

Critical Week: Feel the roar

I've hit the cinemas in California this week trying to catch up on press screenings I missed while away from London. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a deeply unsatisfying follow-up to Gareth Edwards' 2014 reboot. Millie Bobby Brown (above) is terrific in the best role, but the script is choppy and simplistic. The effects are also rather murky, as they are in Dark Phoenix, the fourth in the X-Men First Class cycle. It feels oddly melodramatic, with a superb cast that livens up a dull script that never quite connects the dots. By contrast, Brightburn is another superhero genre twist from James Gunn (see also The Specials and Super). It's a rare horror movie that's scary and involving, because it takes time to build the characters and situations. And these two documentaries are released this week...

The Lavender Scare
dir Josh Howard; with David Johnson, Lillian Faderman, John D'Emilio, Frank Kameny, Jamie Shoemaker
voices Glenn Close, David Hyde Pierce, Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, TR Knight
release US 7.Jun.19 • 17/US 1h17 ****

After taking office in 1954, President Eisenhower ordered the firing of all homosexuals working for the government. The worry was that they could be seduced by Russian spies, even though there wasn't a single documented case of this happening. FBI agents aggressively uprooted every aspect of a suspected gay employee's life in invasive investigations, often on the basis of one informant. The accused had no recourse: they were threatened and then fired as "undesirable" by the tens of thousands, their careers ended, often driven to suicide. All of this came as a shock, as society before this had been much more open and accepting. The film carefully traces how this came about, a perfect storm combining McCarthy's communist witchhunt and a fear of homosexuality sparked by Kinsey's report. Director Howard uses a snappy combination of expert interviews, firsthand accounts and archival material. This includes a number of strikingly involving personal stories, including Frank Kameny, the first person who didn't go quietly after he was fired. He formed an activist society in the early 1960s, which led to a series of protests against discrimination and abuse, including the Stonewall riots at the end of the decade. This continued into the 1990s, when Kameny finally saw President Clinton overturn Eisenhower's law. This is a remarkably important documentary, covering an angle of the civil rights movement that is rarely explored with such honesty. The intimate approach, accompanied by a terrific range of archival material, makes it deeply involving and often powerfully moving. It almost ends on a note of triumph, as if all of the nastiness is in the past, which already feels eerily optimistic and perhaps a bit naive in the face of renewed bigotry and persecution around the world. But this also reminds us that there will always be people willing to stand up for what's right.

This One’s for the Ladies
dir Gene Graham; prd Gene Graham, Paul Rowley
with Momma Joe, Raw Dog, Tygar, Fever, Blaze, Satan, Mr Capable, Young Rider, Poundcake, C-Pudding
release US 7.Jun.19 • 18/US 1h23 ***.

There's an intriguing depth to this documentary, which tackles some big issues using firsthand commentary rather than research or expert opinions. The topic is the urban struggle, encompassing racial injustice and poverty, and the filmmakers simply observe people who speak about an unexpected way they've found to escape the cycle of criminality. The setting is Newark, where beefy black men (and one muscled woman) strip down to a, well, single sock for lively audiences. Filmmaker Graham interviews several members of the New Jersey Nasty Boyz, as well as their loyal fans and family members. They speak a lot about their shared childhoods in the projects and their respect for the community, which is expressed through charity work and fundraising shows. They avoided a life of crime by staying in education and relying on their faith and close relationships, tapping into their African tribal roots as they do erotic dance. The film takes a simple, unfussy approach, letting the sassy attitudes emerge in both captured conversations and sweaty, lusty dance routines. "It's not about sex," says Momma Joe, whose sons Raw Dog and Tygar perform as a double act. "It's the illusion of having sex!" When the filmmakers are focussing on the dancers and their work, the energy is riveting. So the film kind of drags when it drifts gently into the larger themes. But the stories these people tell are powerful, as is the insight they can offer into a society that never gave them a chance due to inadequate schools and below-poverty wages. No wonder it's so difficult to avoid crime. And no wonder stripping offers both the dancers and the audience members an escape, a chance to control their fates. "It's therapy," one guy says. "It's our way out."

I'm heading back to London this weekend, so will be in catch-up mode on films opening over the next few weeks. I have Julianne Moore's Gloria Bell to watch on the plane. And back in London, my diary over the next week includes Danny Boyle's musical Yesterday, the reboot Men In Black International, the indie British drama Bait, and the documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love...

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Critical Week: I'm tired

I'm on a family weekend in the California desert, and we watched a time-honoured favourite together: Mel Brooks' 1975 classic Blazing Saddles, starring the iconic Madeline Kahn, Gene Wilder, Cleavon Little and Harvey Korman. Its rhythms are rather dated for today's rapid-fire comical style, and a lot of the film is deeply uncorrect politically, but I still adore its absurd sense of humour, raucous pastiche and some unforgettable gags. We also took a trip to the local cinema to see Rocketman, the Elton John biopic that's rendered as a musical fantasy. It's surprisingly dark at times, cleverly using the iconic songs out of sequence to generate strong emotional kicks here and there. And Taron Egerton is superb in the lead role.

There are also other films out this week in the US that I want to see, including Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Brightburn, Ma, plus X-Men Dark Phoenix next week, and perhaps I can catch Gloria Bell out on home entertainment release in North America (it opens in UK cinemas next week). It just depends when I can sneak out to a cinema...

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Critical Week: Furry heroes

I caught up with the month's two big kids' movies this past week, before leaving London. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is as frantic as the first film, if not more so with its three parallel plot strands. So it never settles down long enough to make the characters very endearing. But it is funny. And Guy Ritchie's live-action Aladdin remake is a surprisingly childish movie - goofy and energetic. But it's also quite enjoyably camp, with a sweet and pointed romance at the centre. And Will Smith puts his own distinctive spin on the Genie, thankfully.

Haven't managed to catch any other films, but I did watch lots of TV on the long flight, including the final episode of Game of Thrones (it was fine, but not the shocking spectacle the series deserved) and a proper binge of The OA (super-addictive, and I'm still a season behind).

I'm travelling west for the next couple of weeks, visiting family in Los Angeles and friends in Maui - not on glamorous movie business, but I hope to catch up with a few films that are opening while I'm out there, starting with Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir, James Gunn's Brightburn and the Elton John biopic Rocketman, which screened to press in London just after I flew out. Although I have other things on my mind aside from movies, of course...