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...

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Critical Week: Locker talk

Amid sunny weather in London, while many critics decamp to Cannes for 10 days of frantic festival action, there has been the usual eclectic collection of press screenings. Olivia Wilde steps behind the camera to direct the hugely entertaining teen comedy Booksmart, as raucous as any high school comedy and comes from a refreshingly female perspective. For contrast, Keanu Reeves is back in killing mode for John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, which starts off with a series of breathtakingly inventive action sequences before settling in for a relatively rote final act.

The week's indie was Funny Story, a comedy with a very dark undercurrent, beautifully played and bravely written. The foreign film was Portugal's frothy ambrosia Diamantino, a surreal and pointed but surprisingly sweet satire of politics and celebrity culture. And there were three docs: Apollo 11 is a gripping archival film with no present-day material, telling the story of the first man on the moon with pristine film footage and a strikingly intimate perspective. From the brilliant mind of Werner Herzog comes Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, which cleverly traces the life of the late writer on an unusual trek through history and geography. And the finely assembled The Lavender Scare recounts a little-known spin-off of the McCarthy hearings, as government workers were hunted down and ruined for being gay from the early 1950s until the law was repealed in the 1990s.

I have two more screenings before I leave London for a couple of weeks: Will Smith in Disney's live-action Aladdin remake and the animated sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2. There may be some films I can catch up with while I'm in the US, not to mention whatever might be on the plane. I'll be updating the blog along the way...

Monday, 13 May 2019

Short Cuts: Wine, worlds and magic

Here are shorter reviews of three films I caught online over the past few days...

Wine Country
dir Amy Poehler; scr Liz Cackowski, Emily Spivey
with Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey, Tina Fey, Maya Erskine, Cherry Jones, Jason Schwartzman
19/US Netflix 1h43 ***

Amy Poehler gathers her buddies together for this comedy about a group of six women who travel to Napa Valley to celebrate a 50th birthday. Friends for more than two decades, they rent a big house with bad wifi from a manly landlady (Fey) and follow an elaborate schedule planned by Abby (Poehler). The house comes with a sensitive chef/guide (Schwartzman), who adds some welcome texture to the nuttiness, as does the fabulous Cherry Jones as a visiting fortune-teller. She introduces the main plot point by encouraging them to deal with the secrets between them. And of course each of them has a big secret.

The dialog feels realistic and snappy, but lacks edge or insight, opting for gently observational smiles rather than outright laughter. Plus a lot of mugging along with guilty-pleasure pop songs. Improvisational moments add some spark, mainly thanks to shameless scene-stealers Rudolph and Fey, although each of these gifted hams gleefully takes the spotlight. Some of the dialog riffs are hilarious, such as when they talk about their love of Prince or when they cross a group of Millennials in an art gallery. Other things fall flat, like listing the prescription drugs they're on, worried they might interact with molly (as if litres of wine weren't enough). Speaking of wine, much of the humour centres on wildly drunken antics that begin to feel a little lazy, although the inebriated confessions lead into more intriguing angles exploring how avoiding the truth has held these women together all these years. And maybe being honest will make them even closer. So when they begin to admit that their lives aren't as perfect as they pretend they are, the film finds some proper resonance. It's all a bit mushy, but amiable enough to pass the time.

The Wandering Earth 
dir Frant Gwo; scr Geer Gong, Dongxu Yan, Frant Gwo, Junce Ye, Zhixue Yang, Ti Wu, Ruchang Ye, JJ Shen
with Wu Jing, Chuxiao Qu, Jinmai Jaho , Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Michael Kai Sui, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Yang Haoyu,Arkadiy Sharogradskiy
19/China 2h05 **.

China's biggest-yet blockbuster is a big, busy movie that simply refuses to settle down into something engaging. But its ticking-timebomb plot holds the interest. With the sun dying, the world is engulfed with floods, fires, droughts, storms and mass  extinctions. So humans band together to move the earth into another solar system, a journey that will take 2,500 years as giant engines propel the planet like a ship, while humans live in giant underground cities. Now 17 years later, teens Qi and Duoduo (Qu and Jaho) skip school and steal thermal suits so they can go to the icy surface. But Jupiter's gravitational pull is too strong, and Earth is in danger of colliding with it. With the engines failing, mankind's survival depends on Qi and Duoduo and a rag-tag group, while Qi's father Peiqiang (Jing) and his Russian cohort Makalov (Sharogradskiy) try to help from the advance navigation ship.

The plot is fairly simplistic, but it's overcomplicated with extra characters and nonstop action chaos. A variety of cool settings are rendered with with elaborate sets and digital effects. And the pacing is relentless, zipping from one cataclysmic set-piece to the next on a scale that might make Roland Emmerich envious. Even if the direction and editing are a mess, the driving energy that holds the interest. And there are quite a few outrageously emotional and heroic moments, plus some solid humour, such as when one frustrated man empties his gun at Jupiter. Or when a group of teens figures out how to save the world with science! It's a shame the film isn't more coherent, because it's big idea is intriguing (it's based on a novel by Cixin Liu). Perhaps having one or two writers, instead of the eight who are credited, might have given the film more focus.

General Magic
dir Sarah Kerruish, Matt Maude; scr Sarah Kerruish, Jonathan Key, Matt Maude
with Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, John Sculley, Marc Porat, Tony Fadell, Michael Stern, Megan Smith, Bill Atkinson, David Hoffman
18/US 1h33 ****

Silicon Valley is apparently full of stories of people inventing the right thing at the wrong time, paving the way for future technology. This pacey documentary traces the fortunes of the team behind General Magic, the most important company that nobody's ever heard of. Inspired by the idea of inventing a new future, Marc Porat imagined the ideal tech beyond the personal computer and designed what we know now as the smartphone in 1989, before mobile phones or internet existed. His team set out to create a tiny device with personal value like jewellery, indispensable, much more than either phone or computer. The staff was the cream of the crop, a spin-off of Apple with a rock star development team. But the public wasn't ready for this yet, and without mass interest, the company failed. Team members who knew this would still be the future went off to create things like eBay and LinkedIn, and years later later the iPod, iPhone and Android.

The film combines new interviews with archival footage, home video and news clips that remind just how much technology has changed since 1990. It's fascinating to watch these young people dream big, coming up with ideas that were wild back then but are everyday now. And to see them develop the hardware to make it work is astonishing, especially as they are creating objects from the ground up. This is a story of unfettered idealism, working to better the world rather than to make a lot of money. It's a vivid depiction of how failure is actually the beginning, not the end. This company was so far ahead of its time that it collapsed, and yet it still changed the lives of literally billions of people.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Stage: Two 19th century tales

Fanny & Stella: The Shocking True Story
by Glenn Chandler • music Charles Miller • dir Steven Dexter
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 8.May-2.Jun.19

Pearce as the trial judge
Originally staged in 2015 at Above the Stag's previous venue, this musical gets a welcome revival on a bigger stage. Based on real events, it's a sharply well-written exploration of gender and equality set in 1870 London. Writer Glenn Chandler sets out the story as a musical hall variety show, using comedy and witty songs to recount a series of events involving cross-dressing performers Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton (Tobias Charles and Kieran Parrott). Their alter egos Fanny and Stella hilariously re-enact their story as entertainers on The Strand who cavort around town with their wealthy benefactors. They get in trouble with the law for leaving the theatre in drag, but were never convicted of sodomy. The show recounts their relationships with various men, including Lord Arthur Clinton (Christian Andrews), Louis Charles Hurt (Tom Mann) and American diplomat John Safford Fiske (Blair Robertson).

All of this is played with a cheeky sense of humour on a vaudeville stage, as the actors continually torment the theatre manager Grimes (Mark Pearce) by demanding random personality traits and accents in the side roles he's playing. Each of the six actors plays multiple roles as the story unfolds, bringing a lively sense of raucous energy to each scene. And Chandler keeps the narrative moving briskly along, packing in fascinating real-life details along with the amusing musical numbers, which are infused with eyebrow-raising innuendo. The staging is superb, with subtle set changes that make the most of the witty costumes and the side entrances, which are through closets.

The real Boulton and Park
Through all of this, the uniformly excellent cast layers the general silliness with subtle but powerful emotional resonance that extends to some knowing thematic commentary about how long it has taken society to grapple with the issue of human sexuality. Park and Boulton's scandalous trial predated Oscar Wilde's by 25 years, a full century before Stonewall. Frankly, this is an unmissable show. And it would easily work on an even bigger stage.

NOTE: I also reviewed Above the Stag's staging of Fanny & Stella in May 2015.

The Swell Mob
by Flabbergast Theatre
Colab Factory, London Bridge • 4.May-25.Aug.19

A hit on the Edinburgh Fringe, this immersive theatre experience takes audiences back to a swirly, surreal version of 1830s Britain. The audience and the actors mix together in a wildly ornate pub, drinking bathtub gin and whispering secrets as a preacher orates in the corner and a dog sleeps through the ruckus on a sofa. It's a ribald evening full of activities, including dance, puppetry and cabaret. A croupier encourages me to place a bet on a bare-knuckle fight held in the basement. The match is electrically well-choreographed and thrilling (alas, his betting tip was off). In a back room, a shady lady leads us in a seance to figure out how to escape from this lurid place. It has something to do with the lowlands and Layla, a woman who seems to be everywhere I turn, telling me crazy things. A lonely man with a bleached-white face is lurking as well, and no one seems to be able to see him. Later someone gets shot. There are boisterous songs, and a climactic moment of soul-sucking horror.

The cast is flat-out excellent, bringing earthy physicality and vivid personality to each role, interacting easily with the audience. Although what all of this means is somewhat unclear. This is one of those events at which the more you get involved, the more your own narrative begins to take shape. At the centre of the performance is a supernatural mystery, so all of the instructions, songs and dramas work together to create both atmosphere and a story.

It's certainly a vivid experience, made even more fun by the fact that they encourage you to dress in costume to make it even more difficult to tell who's part of the show and who's in the audience. But then, everyone's part of this show. And it's a lot of lively fun. It's also the kind of event you could return to several times and find a new story each time. But be warned: if you don't work at it, the plot is elusive, leaving lots of atmosphere but little that grabs hold.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Critical Week: Dress to impress

With another long weekend, it's been a shorter than usual week of screenings. But I still kept pretty busy. The biggest release screened to the press, barely before it opened, was The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. As a comedy it's rather weak, but has some funny moments all the way through. There were also two British period biopics. Tolkien is an impeccably produced look at the early life of JRR Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), although it's a bit dry since it takes place before he wrote anything. The Professor and the Madman follows the tenacious work of James Murray (Mel Gibson) to define the English language and produce the first Oxford English Dictionary, with the help of an in-patient at Broodmoor asylum (Sean Penn). Despite the troubled production, it's a fascinating story, strikingly well acted.

Further afield we had the moving, dark British indie drama Last Summer, about young teens in small-town Wales dealing with a wrenching community crisis. And the even darker American indie drama Just Say Goodbye takes on teen suicide with a perhaps too-provocative story about friendship and parenthood. We also caught the superb documentary XY Chelsea, which closely follows whistleblower Chelsea Manning between two incarcerations. It's involving and even inspiring, taking on those who label her a traitor. And since it's finally out for streaming/etc in the UK, here's a longer take on this doc I saw a few weeks back...

Fahrenheit 11/9
dir-scr Michael Moore; with Michael Moore, Timothy Snyder, Jenifer Lewis, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg 18/US 2h08 ****

Michael Moore was one of the only pundits who predicted the Trump presidency. So this long but watchable and important doc opens with the massive upset of election night 2016, from Clinton supporters' pre-voting revelry turning into gloom to the shocked faces of Team Trump, which clearly didn't expect to win. From here, Moore spins back to look at how Trump accidentally got into the race while trying to increase his profile in contract negotiations with NBC. His racist comments backfired (NBC fired him), but he touched a nerve with a segment of the American public. Masterfully manipulating the media, which was making a fortune from covering his antics, Trump had a long history with Russian mobsters and the media leaders taken down for abusing women. Moore also documents his overt racism and misogyny over many decades, all of which was public knowledge. Similarly, his treasonous behaviour since taking office has also been out in the open.

As usual, Moore connects this to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder (a Trump buddy) declared a fake emergency to essentially privatise the poor, black city, callously poisoning it then covering up the escalating disaster. This takes up a good chunk of the film, and rightly so. Back to the main topic, Moore's dissection of the US electorate is fascinating: the truth is that liberal '60s values reflect the average American today; the Republicans have only won the popular vote in one presidential election in the last 30 years ("You can't call it a democracy if the person who wins the most votes doesn't win"). Moore also covers the fraud among the Democrats, such as how anyone who breaks from the centrist line is suppressed (as was Bernie Sanders), and how in many ways Obama paved the way for Trump. So it was no wonder people were willing to break the system with a protest vote.

Finally, Moore dives into gun control in the wake of the Parkland shootings an teens who refused to sit quietly and accept "thoughts and prayers". The salient point here is that candidates are representing their donors, not the voters. And Moore's most powerful message is that we need to ignore attempts to divide us against each other, rise up and create the government we deserve. History tells us that the US is becoming less democratic and more despotic by the day. So this film's carefully documented conclusions should chill us to the bone.

This coming week, we'll be watching Keanu Reeves in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell and the documentaries Apollo 11, General Magic, The Lavender Scare and Nomad. Plus a couple of stage shows, just for a change of scenery.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Critical Week: Just sit right back...

London critics had a bit of glamour this week at the press screening of Halston, a new documentary about the iconic 1970s designer. It's a beautifully made film, although it essentially skips his personal life. At the other end of the spectrum is Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, the new live-action action-comedy based on the Japanese game. It's energetic and silly, and rather good fun.

Emma Thompson gets yet another fabulous character in Late Night, as a long-time chat show working with a new staff writer (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay) to save her show. And Ethan Hawke chomps the scenery superbly as a hapless bank robber in the comical thriller The Captor (aka Stockholm), based on the true story that coined the term "Stockholm syndrome".

There were also a wide range of indie films this week. The sweet, involving and ultimately wrenching Only You stars Josh O'Connor and Laia Costa as a young couple trying to start a family against the odds. Karen Gillan and David Dastmalchian are terrific in the haunting, emotional road movie All Creatures Here Below. Lin Shaye stars in Room for Rent, a low-key horror about a landlady who becomes scarily obsessed with her tenant. Thunder Road is a seriously offbeat Texas drama about a cop with multiple issues, underscored with dryly pitch-black comedy. Beats is a scruffy, energetically engaging Scottish film about young people trying to get to their first rave. The colour-drenched LA social media romance Daddy Issues takes some offbeat, inventive twists and turns. And there was this unusual doc, which is now streaming everywhere...

The Gilligan Manifesto
dir-scr Cevin Soling; with Sherwood Schwartz, Dawn Wells, Russell Johnson, Don Ostrowski , Loren Graham, Dan Albright; narr Rennie Davis 18/US 1h25 ***

The premise of this rather academic documentary is that the classic TV sitcom Gilligan's Island was created with a specific underlying message about communism to counter Cold War fears. Filmmaker Soling takes a sparky approach, mixing in extensive archival footage and witty music along with interviews, all of which bolster his thesis to a degree. The film opens with rather long and lively outline of the Cold War and the fear that grew in the wake of the atom bomb. A year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, production began on the sitcom, which Solving describes as a story of seven disparate people trying to rebuild society in a virtual post-apocalyptic wasteland using Marxist communism as a template. (Soling observes that only the two working class characters are introduced by name in the famed title song.) As series creator Sherwood Schwartz says, there was a deep philosophy beneath the show's premise, bringing different people together and forcing them to help each other. While most movies addressed the Cold War using tragedy or disaster, he decided to use comedy instead. And stars Johnson and Wells (the Professor and Mary Ann) chat about how they understood that there was something serious under the resolutely silly surface. This doc is a terrific collection of period movie clips and anti-commie propaganda reels, plus overlong sideroads into things like the McCarthy hearings. This makes it feel like a jokey college essay about the nature of Marxism, making a series of rather spurious arguments about a 1960s sitcom. Clips from the show remind us that it was a satirical critique of all kinds of human ideologies (not just capitalism and democracy) and an escape from the rat race. The characters also reveal uncomfortable, often ridiculous truths about ourselves. That's what makes it so indelible. But this doc has other things on its mind.

It's another long weekend in Britain (I could get used to these), but the weather isn't supposed to be quite as nice as the last one. Film screenings in the diary over the next week include Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson's comedy The Hustle, Russell Crowe in The Professor and the Madman, Peter Strickland's In Fabric, the teen drama Just Say Goodbye, the 1970s Welsh drama Last Summer and the Chelsea Manning doc XY Chelsea.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Critical Week: Father knows best

It's been another odd mix of screenings in London this week, with the added distraction of sensational weather over the four-day Easter weekend. Among the films we saw the current No 1 box office hit in the US, The Curse of La Llorona. Made to a very high quality, with a better than necessary performance from Linda Cardellini, it's a rather standard entry in the Conjuring universe: freaky and jumpy but never actually scary. And then there's the film that will be No 1 at the global box office for the near future, Avengers: Endgame. Thrilling, funny and even emotional, it's a massively satisfying climax to the last decade or so of Marvel movies.

Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder reteam for the enjoyably offbeat romantic comedy Destination Wedding, adeptly playing two relentlessly grouchy cynics, the only speaking roles in the film. The involving Just Friends is a Dutch romantic drama gently dealing with a range of social issues, from race to homophobia. And I also saw a range of short films screening this week at Tribeca Film Festival. The best of a strong bunch were by Nick Borenstein: the mother-son zinger 99 and the exuberant lovelorn comedy Sweater.

Finally, I had a chance to catch up with Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, which is set out as a carefully researched look at Donald Trump, linked to the horrific water crisis in Flint, Michigan. No politicians get off lightly. And after watching the first few episodes of the new series Fosse/Verdon, and seeking tickets to the new London stage production, I watched Bob Fosse's stunning 1969 musical Sweet Charity, featuring a magnificent Shirley MacLaine. I also attended the opening of the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at London's Design Museum - a seriously awesome collection of the filmmaker's notes, tools, props and sets that runs until September...

Films screening this coming week include Ryan Reynolds voicing the title character in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, Ethan Hawke in The Captor (aka Stockholm), Josh O'Connor in Only You and the new documentary about Halston.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Critical Week: Charm the camera

It's been another week with a random collection of London press screenings. Thankfully, the winter weather has suddenly turned summery, just in time for the four-day Easter weekend. The biggest movie for me this week was the Sundance hit Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, in which Zac Efron delivers an unusually layered performance as notorious killer Ted Bundy. Thankfully the film isn't chronicling his murders or the police investigation; instead it's a clever take from a more easily identifiable perspective. Claire Denis' foray into science-fiction High Life stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche as crew members on a deep space mission. It's of course beautiful, evocative and rather challenging. And Julianne Moore plays an opera singer in the offbeat Bel Canto, based on a true story about a hostage situation in South America. It's a mix of drama and thriller, impeccably played by the cast. But it's an odd concoction.

Further afield, we had Sergei Loznitsa's pitch-black political comedy Donbass, about the Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine. It's brilliantly shot and edited, and the doc-style acting makes it both funny and harrowing. The Skin of the Teeth is a quirky drama set in New York that explores identity through a very unusual drug trip. Set in rural Argentina, the strikingly well made and darkly involving Marilyn is about a young man harshly harassed for questioning the idea of masculinity. Hagazussa is a freak-out horror from Germany, full of 15th century superstitious nastiness. And Doozy is a part-animated experimental documentary about comic icon Paul Lynde, a little too arty to offer much in the way of information, but still fascinating. And then there was this music-based movie, dropped online last weekend...

Guava Island!
dir Hiro Murai; scr Stephen Glover
with Donald Glover, Rihanna, Letitia Wright, Nonso Anozie, Betiza Bistmark Calderon, Yansel Alberto Monagas Perez, Ayensi Amilgar Jardines Delgado, Karla Talia Pino Piloto
19/US ***.

This short feature is set out as a mythological story of love and war, set around an island called Guava at the centre of the world. The opening, beautifully animated in the style of a children's book with intricate colours and textures, recounts how the Red family seized control of the silkworms, industrialising production and destroying paradise. Generations later in a poverty-stricken suburb, Kofi (Rihanna) grows up hearing this story, dreaming about a life far away. Her childhood boyfriend is musician Deni (Glover), who dreams of writing a song that will unite the island's people and remind them of what this place could be. From here the film shifts into beautifully shot live-action, with Rihanna and Glover in the roles. They bristle with wit and personality in the vibrant, sundrenched-island setting (it was filmed in Havana). While Kofi works in a garment factory with her friend Yara (Wright), Deni is planning a secret concert to feature his new songs, which have begun being played on local radio. Deni sings about how Guava is essentially America, since the only way to get rich is to make someone else richer. As a result, he's grabbed by officials and taken to the boss Red Cargo (Anozie). "How do you know what's best for everyone?" Deni asks him, as he declares the concert cancelled. As the story continues, there's a terrific mixture of music and song, including variations on Childish Gambino hits This Is America and Summertime Magic. And the drama shifts seamlessly from personal and warm to edgy and intense. The story takes several turns, sometimes a bit obvious (Kofi has just found out that she's pregnant) and sometimes darkly surprising (Red Cargo's reaction is vicious when Deni defiantly decides to go on with his performance). Where the story goes is sobering and sometimes shocking. What it says about human resilience in the face of oppression is powerful, while the pulsing fusion of music and culture adds a visceral kick. So while it feels a bit slight, it's a badly needed cry of hope in an unjust world.

After Easter weekend, we have screenings of the year's biggest blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, Lin Shaye in Room for Rent, the Scottish indie drama Beats, the Dutch drama Just Friends, and a collection of short films screening at the forthcoming Tribeca Film Festival.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Stage: Throwing shapes

choreography Damien Jalet • scenography Kohei Nawa
music Marihiko Hara, Ryuichi Sakamoto
with Aimilios Arapoglou, Nobuyoshi Asai, Mayumi Minakawa, Ruri Mitoh, Jun Morii, Mirai Moriyama, Naoko Tozawa
Sadler's Wells, London • 16-17.Apr.19

An extraordinary display of physicality, this inventive production mixes elements of dance and installation art with bigger ideas about the nature of the human body. It may be pretentious, but it's also audaciously effective. Damien Jalet and Kohei Nawa have concocted a programme that is often astonishing in its visual impact as the dancers create seemingly impossible shapes with their bodies.

It opens and closes in inky blackness. The stage is coated with running water, which reflects the poses to create almost kaleidoscopic patterns. It's difficult to see how many dancers there are (four men and three women), their bodies entwined into larger figures that slowly unfold and move into eerily headless poses. The choreography continually obscures the dancers' heads, so they resemble strange non-human figures without an up or down. And when they get close to each other, they merge into a larger being. They also split and divide into two or three. And on a central floating island, they find a white clay that transforms their shapes further.

The staging itself is deceptively simple, relying on light, texture, water and mist to create each evolving tableau. It's all very controlled, with only occasional moments of levity, such as when playful movement suddenly matches a musical rhythm. But every moment of this show is impeccably rendered with architectural precision, even as it evokes imagery that feels alive in ways that were impossible to imagine beforehand.

Using solids and liquids, light and shadow, birth and death, Jalet and Nawa have crafted a kind of creation myth. The dancers perform with acrobatic grace, moving in slow motion as they shift between figures that are unidentifiably human. Their transformations are simply mesmerising, requiring intense strength as they wrap themselves around each other, blurring gender, ethnicity and individuality to create something that feels exhilaratingly unifying.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Critical Week: Sleep tight

It's been a relatively quiet week, screening-wise, partly because the bigger studios have decided to stop showing their larger releases to the press. For example, this week's remake of Hellboy had no press screenings at all. And we're beginning to wonder what will happen with some rather important upcoming blockbusters. Thankfully, the smaller films and mid-sized ones are still available for us write about. This week I caught up with Neil Jordan's bonkers horror thriller Greta, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz (above). It's nutty and entertaining. I also watched Tessa Thompson and Lily James in the gritty, powerful rural drama Little Woods.

My favourite film this week was the concert doc Amazing Grace, filmed in 1972 and only just released, revealing the awesome Aretha Franklin in all her gospel-infused glory. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a riotously grisly 80s-style slasher movie about an army of killer Nazi puppets. It's both hilarious and seriously nasty. No Chocolate, No Rice is a micro-budget comedy from Washington DC, a bit clunky but full of great ideas and likeable characters. And the sparky, beautifully assembled German documentary Beauty & Decay, catches up with three punk-art stars from the early 1980s in Berlin today.

This coming week we have Zac Efron in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Julianne Moore in Bel Canto, Robert Pattinson in High Life and the offbeat animation Doozy. I've also got a couple of events, and possibly another stage performance to cover.