Thursday, 26 May 2022

Critical Week: Monumental

Screenings have been a bit slow in London during the Cannes Film Festival, so it's perhaps appropriate that I saw two French films this week. Romain Duris plays the eponymous tower-building character in the biopic Eiffel, which injects Hollywood-style melodramatic romance into a fascinating story. And Juliette Binoche is wonderful as always in Between Two Worlds, an earthy doc-style drama about a journalist who joins a community of very low-paid workers.

Luzzu • Cop Secret
The Perfect David • 18½
There was also the offbeat Watergate thriller 18½, about two people who discover a copy of that "accidentally erased" tape. It's witty and very clever. And from China, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is the eighth movie in a 10-year franchise, but only the first to get a UK release. It's a strikingly well-animated romp involving bears and aliens, with some terrific action set pieces and a surprisingly big story too. I also caught up with these two recent streaming releases...

Senior Year
dir Alex Hardcastle; scr Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli, Brandon Scott Jones 
with Rebel Wilson, Sam Richardson, Angourie Rice, Mary Holland, Zoe Chao, Justin Hartley, Chris Parnell, Jade Bender
22/US Paramount 1h51 ***

Refreshingly, this comedy never aspires to be anything more than a goofy romp that keeps us smiling and occasionally laughing. Slick and bouncy, the film's chirpy attitude makes up for a string of cheap jokes and a lack of anything substantial under the surface. The story centres on Stephanie (Wilson), who has just woken up after 20 years in a coma following a cheerleading accident. Now at 37, she wants to finish high school, again as head cheerleader and this time as prom queen. There are the obvious gags about about how the world has changed since Stephanie's heyday, including of course mobile phones, social media and Lady Gaga. Her best friend (Holland) is now the principal, the boy (Hartley) she loved is married to her nemesis (Chao), and the friend (Richardson) who had a secret crush on her is for some reason the school librarian. It's annoying that the writers never dig any deeper, because there's scope for a more layered comedy here. Instead they fall back on simplistic plotting, buckets of sentimentality and oddly vague nostalgia. But because the movie is so happily superficial, it just about does the trick as mindless entertainment.

Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers
dir Akiva Schaffer; scr Dan Gregor, Doug Mand
with Andy Samberg, John Mulaney, Will Arnett, KiKi Layne, JK Simmons, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Bana, Dennis Haysbert, Tress MacNeille
22/US Disney 1h37 ***.
Intriguing reviews made me want to check out this new take on the iconic Disney chipmunks, set in a world where cartoon characters live alongside live-action people. Filled to the brim with cameos, it's a meta-comedy about the movie business. Years after their act broke up, Chip and Dale (voiced by Mulaney and Samberg) have gone their separate ways. Chip is selling insurance, while Dale has had "CGI surgery" and wants to reteam with Chip for a reboot of their 30-year-old hit TV show. Along with wildly inventive effects, witty sight gags and a surprisingly strong mystery plot involving bootleg cartoon characters, the film is a steady stream of hilarious pop culture references. There's even a trip to Uncanny Alley, where everyone has those creepy "Polar Express eyes". A deeply irreverent attitude infuses this film, which makes the barrage of gags unusually sharp and surprising, and the action sometimes feels thrilling too. But it's the character details that make this riotous romp unusually involving. 

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Things remain a bit quieter than usual next week as far as screenings go, but I have one rather big film, Baz Luhrmann's epic biopic Elvis, plus a few to watch at home, including the award-winning Italian drama Il Buco, the burlesque doc Baloney, the comical doc A Sexplanation and the shorts collection The Male Gaze: Fleeting Glances.

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Stage: The power of protest

Any Attempt Will End in Crushed Bodies and Shattered Bones
choreography Jan Martens
dancers Ty Boomershine, Truus Bronkhorst, Jim Buskens, Zoë Chungong, Piet Defrancq, Naomi Gibson, Kimmy Ligtvoet, Cherish Menzo, Steven Michel, Gesine Moog, Dan Mussett, Wolf Overmeire, Tim Persent, Courtney May Robertson, Laura Vanborm, Loeka Willems
lighting Jan Fedinger
costumes Cédric Charlier
Sadler's Wells, London • 24-25.May.22

There's a vibrant surge of purpose in this piece by Jan Martens, which ebbs and flows over the course of 90 minutes. It's an evocative exploration of individuality within society, centred around the power of collective protest as a means of expression and change. And its varied rhythms become a provocative call to activism, celebrating the need for people to stand up for each other.

An ensemble of 17 performers takes to the empty stage on their own terms, either alone or in groups, each creating an individual character with his or her own movements, costumes, attitude and story. Martens' bracingly kinetic choreography creates an uncanny effect: as if the music is emerging from the dancers instead of them performing to it. The score comes from Henryk Górecki's pulsating Concerto Pour Clavecin et Cordes Op 40, plus jazz from Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, and spoken word elements by Kae Tempest. 

An extended music-free section in the middle features a mesmerising display of intricate manoeuvres accompanied only by the soft beat of the ensemble's marching feet as they move individually and as a group. Then after a rather long on-stage costume change, there's a terrific reveal using a trick of the light, leading into an energetic final section that's colourful and even more intensely physical. Through all of this, dancers dart on and off the stage, into and out of formations, sometimes doing their own private turn in a corner.

The show's title comes from a statement made by China's President Xi Jinping about Hong Kong protesters in 2019, and Martens has woven these activists' gestures into the choreography. This combination of street movement, modern dance and ballet is often breathtaking to watch, as the patterns ripple and move around the stage to echo human resilience and vulnerability. A section in which vile social media trolling comments flash across the screen adds a dark edge to the performance. This is a haunting, urgent comment on protests around the world today from Black Lives Matter to climate change and the economic crisis.

photos by Phile Deprez • 24.May.22

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Critical Week: Take my breath away

In the cinema this week, I had two sequels that were made decades after the original films. One of the biggest blockbusters of the year, Tom Cruise's Top Gun: Maverick comes 35 years after Top Gun. The script isn't very good, but the action is so visceral that it's bound to be a mammoth hit. And then there's the 50-years-later sequel The Railway Children Return, which again stars Jenny Agutter, a teen in the original and a grandmother this time. It's a gently warm family film with lots of child-based adventures, although it's unclear who the audience will be for this one.

Men • Emergency • Benediction
And then there was Men, Alex Garland's unhinged horror movie starring Jesse Buckley as a woman who goes on a very nasty odyssey fuelled by grief. It's heavy symbolism a little unclear, but the film is challenging and provocative. Eugenio Derbez stars in a remake of The Valet, an enjoyably unchallenging romantic comedy. Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude ambitiously takes on his nation's dark past in the inventive dramatised documentary collage Uppercase Print. And I also attended one of the in-person screenings that are part of Odyssey: A Chinese Cinema Season, a month-long festival featuring more than 60 films and events in various UK venues and online... 

River of Salvation
dir-scr Gao Qisheng; with Li Yanxi, Zhu Kangli 21/Chn ****
Chinese filmmaker Gao Quisheng takes an observant approach with this drama, which traces a young woman's heart-stopping journey into accepting her long-hidden truth. Shot in an up-close documentary style, the story centres on 32-year-old Rong (Li Yanxi), a masseuse who lives with her layabout 18-year-old brother Xiaodong (Zhu Kangli). They barely connect, but are both going through identity-shaping events: while she worries about a shifting situation at work, his free-spirited girlfriend (Yang Peiqi) has just announced that she's pregnant. The plot seems to meander between them, then shifts as they find common ground and make some big decisions. What emerges is a startlingly insightful exploration of the pressures of modern life. Ultimately, Rong finally feels ready to face up to her distant past by heading back to her snowy hometown. This startling epilogue adds new context to the story and offers a moving sense of catharsis.

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This coming week, films to watch include Juliette Binoche in Between Two Worlds, Romain Duris in the biopic Eiffel, the Watergate thriller 18½ and the horror thriller Frank & Penelope.

Saturday, 14 May 2022

Stage: Fun in the sun

Alright Bitches
by Martin Blackburn
dir Bryan Hodgson
with Daniel Breakwell, Marcus J Foreman, Josiah Eloi, Wilson Armour, Jackie Pulford
sets and costumes David Shields
lighting Joseph Ed Thomas
Above the Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 11.May-4.Jun.22

A witty bit of fun to kick off the summer, this goofy comedy amusingly riffs on a range of gay stereotypes as it tells a story that's surprisingly warm. It's not riotously hilarious, but the story is enjoyably silly, and the characters are likeable, with each getting a number of jaggedly witty punchlines along the way. And while it's also never as sexy as it really should be, at least there's plenty of filthy innuendo to fuel the farcical atmosphere.

At the fading gay resort Los Hombres in Playa del Ingles, Gran Canaria, birthday boy Garth (Breakwell) is on the prowl for shallow sex, while his best friend Max (Eloi) looks for something marginally more meaningful. Their older gal-pal Pam (Pulford) is also on hand, hoping to kickstart her romantic life. Then a couple arrives in the bungalow next door: Ollie (Foreman) and. Ollie just wants some sunshine and relaxation after a serious past few months, while his older boyfriend Jason (Armour) finds it hard to imagine a holiday without any cultural value at all.

Over the course of the week, these five characters mix together for a range of activities that force them to work out what they want to do with their lives. Each of these people is at a crossroads, so various actions push them to make big decisions, with a couple of illicit kisses and plenty of comical messiness along the way. And a sideplot involving a reclusive man in the next cabin adds a rather forceful point later on. Clearly playwright Blackburn has more on his mind than laughs here, which helps make the play engaging and satisfying. But the show would benefit from naughtier shenanigans and a more consistently high-spirited tone.

The actors deliver performances that are deliberately heightened for comical value, complete with some very silly accents, although they never tip over into caricature. At the start, these people seems to be little more than gay scene cliches, but as the story continues they deepen into more complex individuals. Each one might still be vaguely ridiculous, but he or she wins us over by being so recognisable. Each has a chance to stand out, but it's Pulford's Pam who both brings the party and makes the most razor-sharp observations. And Eloi gets the best amusing scene-stealing moments as the sarcastic Max.

As always, the team at Above the Stag outdoes itself when it comes to the set, which recreates a beach resort with terrific detail. And while the show is perhaps over-punctuated by voiceovers from a tour guide and cleverly lit cutaways to club nights and other events, these transitions are sharply well-staged to put the audience right in the splash zone. Essentially, this show is like one of those over-wrought tropical fruit cocktails: it goes down very easily, lightens the mood and gives us a boost. 

For information, visit ABOVE THE STAG >

photos by PBGstudios • 13.May.22

Friday, 13 May 2022

Stage: Let's get wild

Wild Tango
director-choreographer German Cornejo
dancers German Cornejo, Gisela Galeassi, Ezequiel Lopez, Maia Roldan, Edgar Luizaga, Nicolas Schell, Pamela Pucheta, Isaac Gardella, Leonardo Luizaga, Alex Bogado, Juan Segui, Jonathan Lazarte, Nelson Leiva
musicians Ovidio Velazquez, Luciano Bassi, Matias Rubino, Jeronimo Izarrualde
sets and lighting Marius Arnold-Clarke
Peacock Theatre, London • 12-21.May.22

Seriously gifted dancers and musicians bring an exuberance to this show that keeps the audience on-side even though there are some issues with lighting, costumes and choreography. The show's director and lead dancer German Cornejo deliberately blazes a modernising trail for the Argentine tango, harking back to its roots as a social dance for working-class male couples while pushing it forward into present-day musical genres. But it feels like a missed opportunity to connect tango's same-sex history with today's gender-blurred culture.

The show opens with a burst of feisty energy as 10 men and three women fire off a series of rapid-paced tango manoeuvres across the stage, then move into a series of more focussed performance pieces that blend traditional steps with new ones. Frustratingly, the costumes distract from the dancing, as the men are dressed in black harem pants (not gaucho pants as seems intended) that obscure their legs. And the leather corsets and straps feel oddly cliched. Several moments feature men dancing together with real power, especially when flame-haired firecracker Juan Segui is on the stage. 

But rather than embracing the tango's androgynous qualities, the costumes and choreography emerge through a male gaze. The men circle around in the direction of the women, who are dressed in skimpier outfits that at least highlight their extraordinary legwork. And the lighting doesn't help, shining from the top or side on black-clad performers on a black stage. Even so, there's a pulsing energy that's undeniable, and moments of energetic scrappiness that add a whiff of danger. 

Everything switches up a gear after the interval, with a triumphant opener in which everyone is on-stage wearing day-glo jumpsuits while the astonishing vocalist Luciano Bassi takes his place at the front of the stage to lead the charge. From here on, brightly coloured costumes echo a musical shift, weaving traditional styles into storming anthems, pop rock and even a hint of metal. And the choreography is more impressive because we can see the performers more clearly, even if a few of the costumes are downright inexplicable. 

A few numbers along the way incorporate aerial aspects; these look very cool but feel under-planned. And the moving scaffolds are also under-used. Meanwhile, the excellent band gets two numbers on their own in the second half, which seems odd for a dance show, and basically means that Bassi ends up stealing the show. That said, there are moments all the way through this production that take the breath away, simply because these dancers are the very best at what they do. And the way they inject tango touches into such a wide variety of dance styles is seriously impressive.

photos by Leo Mason • 12.May.22

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Critical Week: Let it burn

A much-promised heatwave failed to materialise in London this week. It's been a bit warmer, but not worth planning to be outside instead of in a cinema. Press screenings this week were lower key than they have been - no blockbusters this week. Caleb Landry Jones has been rightfully winning awards for his textured turn in Nitram, a fact-based story from Australia that's involving and very chilling. 

The Quiet Girl • Vortex
Everything Everywhere All at Once
This Much I Know to Be True
Two films skilfully mangled genres. Emergency looks like a standard American stoner comedy romp, but is actually much darker and deeper in its exploration of race and class issues. All My Friends Hate Me looks like a standard British reunion comedy, but is actually an unnerving exploration of 30-something insecurities. The experimental military drama Foxhole takes a pointed, involving look at war by putting its cast into action on three very different battlefields. The Chilean drama The Sea tackles issues of love and sexuality in offbeat, impossible to stereotype ways. And the documentary The Princess chronicles Princess Diana's life using only news and paparazzi footage, creating a powerful narrative in the process.

This coming week, films to watch include Tom Cruise's 35-years-later sequel Top Gun: Maverick, the 50-years-later sequel The Railway Children Return, Jesse Buckley in Men, Rebel Wilson's comedy Senior Year, the Romanian drama Uppercase Print and the Chinese drama River of Salvation.

Saturday, 7 May 2022

Cabaret: Making your mind up

Eurovision (Your Decision?)
writer-director Tim McArthur
with Lucy Penrose, Tim McArthur,
Sarah Moore, Christian Andrews
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • 6-14.May.22

Celebrating its #secondcoming after last year's hit run, this superbly well-assembled cabaret show counts down to the real Eurovision Song Contest by taking audience members on a gleefully irreverent trip through the competition's long history. And while it sometimes gets a bit silly, the show manages to strike just the right balance between snarky satire and heartfelt homage. It also features some seriously gifted performers in a terrific venue, complete with table service throughout the show.

As hosts Katie and Demetrius (Lucy Penrose and Tim McArthur) surge onto the stage with their shimmery outfits and ludicrous accents, we immediately know right where we are: a grand European arena filled with screaming fans, ready to watch a parade of colourful musical numbers, hopefully of the bonkers variety. What follows are 14 Eurovision hits, staged with elaborate choreography and performed with a riotous succession of wigs and costumes by four up-for-it performers: Penrose, McArthur, Sarah Moore and Christian Andrews.

Sound of Silence
The musical highlight is Penrose's soaring rendition of Sound of Silence (Australia 2016 - right), while the most enjoyably nutty number is the spacetacular Dancing Lasha Tumbai (Ukraine 2007 - below), only marginally more camp than the original version. A strong second place in this category would be the amusingly quirky staging of Think About Things, Iceland's catchy entry to the cancelled 2020 competition. The UK is represented by four numbers, including the blissfully choreographed ditty Flying the Flag (2007), Ooh Aah ... Just a Little Bit (1996), Making Your Mind Up (1981's winner) and a pastiche rendition of Cliff Richards' Congratulations (which only missed the top spot by one point in 1968).

Sweden's 2015 winner Heroes
All four of the performers display impressive vocal and dance skills along the way, always with a sly wink to the audience. They are also more than willing to lose all of their dignity along the way. During the interval, we get to vote for our winner, followed by a special performance from a guest singer who delivers the standards All of Me and I've Got You Under My Skin with effortless charm. Finally, there's the voting tally, which is as ridiculous as we hope it will be, followed by a frantically quick change to get back into the right wigs for the big reprise finale. It's impossible not to have a great time at an evening like this, and it's hard to imagine that it's not on its way to becoming a beloved annual event on its own.

Dancing Lasha Tumbai
For information, visit ABOVE THE STAG >