Amélie: the Musical

25/06/19

My first thought on hearing that Jean Pierre-Jeunet’s 2001 movie had been turned into a stage musical was ‘how the hell are they going to pull that off?’ The answer? With charm and élan. Unlike so many recent ‘film-to-stage’ adaptations, which are merely attempts to slavishly copy the look and feel of the original, Amélie: the Musical is an accomplished theatrical experience in its own right.

It is, off course, the story of Amélie Poulain (Audrey Brisson), a shy loner who lives her life vicariously through the experiences of others. As a child (where she is adorably portrayed by a puppet), her eccentric parents convince themselves that their little girl is suffering from a rare heart condition and subsequently deny her all contact with the outside world. Little wonder she turns out as she does.

After her mother’s bizarre death and her father’s increasing isolation, Amelie realises she needs to seek new horizons. She packs a bag and heads off to Paris, where she takes a job as a waitress in a little café and becomes increasingly involved in the lives of her colleagues, customers and neighbours. She also bumps into Nino (Danny Mac) on the Metro, a young man who has a strange preoccupation with public photo-booths. She immediately feels a powerful attraction to him – but how will she ever overcome her shyness and summon up the courage to speak to him?

There’s an ensemble cast of sixteen actors, all of whom play musical instruments and most of whom are onstage throughout, providing a haunting accompaniment to the action. The songs by Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messé are memorable – I particularly enjoy the sequence where Amélie fantasises that she is the recently deceased Princess Diana, and Elton John (Caolin McCarthy) delivers a heartfelt elegy to mark her passing. Special mention should also be made of Madeleine Girling’s ingenious set design, which, with a few minor adjustments, manages to transform itself into a whole series of locations, as the cast troop back and forth with military precision. As Amélie, Brisson is an extraordinary presence, whether she’s slinking around in pursuit of some new objective or zooming effortlessly up to her circular lair above the action.

Amelie: the Musical comes closer than most film adaptations to achieving the best of both worlds. Fans of the movie will feel that it has been shown exactly the right amount of respect, while lovers of theatre will enjoy this as a gloriously eccentric theatrical event.

Win-win!

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Toy Story 4

23/06/19

It’s hard to believe that the original Toy Story first graced cinema screens in 1995, back when my own daughter was a little girl. The film was a game-changer in so many ways, pioneering CG animation and launching the start of Pixar’s amazing run of superb features. Along the years, there were – inevitably – a couple of sequels. Toy Story 2 debuted in 1999, introducing a new character, Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the third instalment, which ambled onto screens in 2010, seemed to provide the perfect end to a consistently excellent trilogy.

Like most people, I wasn’t really overjoyed to learn that Pixar were returning to the well one more time. I mean, ask yourself, is there a fourth part of any film franchise that works? All things considered, then, it’s a credit to Pixar’s undoubted production skills that this is as enjoyable as it is.

Since the toys’ original owner, Andy, headed off to college and donated his collection to Bonnie, Woody (Tom Hanks) has come to terms with the fact that he is no longer top dog in the toy closet, often finding himself left in there with the older members of the team, while Bonnie plays with newer acquisitions. But, he’s well aware that toys must move on. After all, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) suffered that fate in the second film, sent to an unknown destination, and Woody often wonders what became of her. However, he still has the love of a child and that’s the most important thing in the world for any toy, right?

I’ll confess that these early stretches, though as skilfully rendered as ever, do not exactly inspire me. It feels as though we’re retracing old ground. However, when Bonnie is sent to her first day at kindergarten, things pick up a little. She fashions a toy of her own out of a plastic spork and  a length of pipe cleaner, naming her creation Forky and falling unconditionally in love with him. Forky (Tony Hale) struggles to accept his new role as a toy. He thinks of himself as trash and spends most of his time trying to throw himself into the nearest litter bin, but – for Bonnie’s sake – Woody takes on the role of Forky’s minder.

Then Bonnie’s parents decide to take her on a road trip and the whole gang get to go along. The family’s RV does a stop over at an amusement park and it’s here that Woody reconnects with Bo, who has been surviving out on her own for years and has become a plucky, independent adventurer with loftier ambitions than simply being a child’s plaything. From here, the film becomes much more interesting, unveiling a sinister side to proceedings with the appearance of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage doll with a broken voice box, trapped in a second hand store. She has her own entourage of minders (four incredibly creepy ventriloquist dolls) and, spotting that Woody has the kind of voice box she needs, sees an opportunity to ingratiate herself with the shop owner’s granddaughter, Harmony.

The film has one more trump card to play in the shape of Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) a Canadian stunt motorcyclist (clearly modelled on Evil Knievel), who has been haunted all his life by his inability to match up to the promises made in his advertising campaign. This feels like a role that Reeves was born to play and he does it with glee.

So yes, this is enjoyable enough, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to those illustrious predecessors. There are some problems with the story’s internal logic. I find myself  wondering why, despite their advanced years, the toys still manage to look pristine. Shouldn’t they be a bit scuffed and (whisper it!) damaged by now? Wouldn’t that have made for an interesting strand? And, since Woody is now considered a second level toy, how come he even gets to go on that fateful road trip in the first place?

Perhaps I’m just being picky. The scores of well-behaved youngsters at the afternoon screening I attend are proof that Toy Story 4 does exert considerable charms on its intended audience – and at the end of the day, I have to admit that I enjoy it along with them.

But please, Pixar, don’t be tempted to do a part 5! There’s only one direction to go from here and it’s the place where Forky longs to be!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Rolling Thunder Revue: a Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

22/06/19

True confession: I’ve never been one of Bob Dylan’s greatest fans.

There, I said it. Oh sure, I had a brief infatuation with Highway 61 Revisited back in the day, and I’d be the first to suggest that The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a strong contender for ‘greatest protest song ever written.’ But something in Dylan’s mannered drawling voice made me decide that I preferred his songs sung by other artists. Now along comes this unwieldily titled concert movie, and I find myself having to re-evaluate my position. Rolling Thunder portrays an artist at the very peak of his powers, casually throwing out solid-gold belters as though by some kind of involuntary reflex.

Of course, there’s nothing new about a lot of this footage. It’s been mostly salvaged from Dylan’s own attempt to film his 1975/6 tour under the title Renaldo and Clara, which died a quiet death at the box office more than forty years ago. And this isn’t exactly a straight concert film either, featuring – as it does – some fictional elements. There’s Martin Von Haselerg as ‘The Filmmaker,’ claiming to be the film’s true author. There’s Sharon Stone, telling us that she was taken on as a wardrobe assistant on the tour at the age of eighteen (she wasn’t). And there’s Michael Murphy as ‘The Politician,’ making comments about the bicentenary that was taking place as Dylan and his motley crew strutted their stuff around a series of intimate venues across America.

But there’s plenty here to enjoy, not least a pugnacious rendition of Hattie Carroll with Dylan contemptuously spitting out the lyrics at the crowd; the scene where Joan Baez and Dylan reveal that the two of them really should have married each other, instead of other people; and, of special interest to me, the sequence where a radiant Joni Mitchell knocks out an early draft of Coyote, while Dylan and Roger McGuinn meekly accompany her on guitars. (This song, of course, is about her brief affair with playwright Sam Shepard, who also appears in the film.)

With its hefty running time, this might not have found an audience at the cinema, so Netflix seems the ideal home for it. Dylan aficionados will have a field day – and those who, like me, have been sitting on the fence concerning Mr Zimmerman, may have something of an epiphany.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Yesterday

20/06/19

Welcome to Richard Curtis Land – a magical place where famous film stars can fall in love with meek bookshop owners; where smitten young men can write their declarations of love for recently married women on a series of cue cards; and where, in this latest iteration, the Beatles never existed. Yes, that’s right. Imagine if you will, a world where the names John, Paul, George and Ringo mean absolutely zilch.

Aspiring singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is scratching a precarious existence playing a series of dead-end bookings by night, and working at a cash and carry by day. His gigs are arranged for him by his ‘manager,’ Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who works days as a secondary school teacher and who quite clearly fancies the pants off Jack, something he appears to be entirely oblivious to. But, after his last disappointing show, Jack is about ready to give up his dreams and ‘go back to teaching…’

He is blissfully unaware that his career is about to take an unexpected leap in an upward direction. Riding home on his bike one evening, he is struck by a bus, at the same moment a sudden loss of electricity hits the entire world for a full twelve seconds. Once recovered from his accident, Jack discovers that there have been some baffling changes to the world he knows – and when he sings Paul McCartney’s Yesterday to a bunch of friends, they react very strangely. ‘When did you write that?’ asks Ellie, incredulously.

A bit of surfing on the internet reveals the incredible truth. In this new alternate reality, the Beatles have never existed – and yet Jack knows most of their songs! So he starts to perform and record them, passing them off as his own work and – perhaps not surprisingly – after a few false starts, his career shoots upwards into the stratosphere. But we know, don’t we, that there’s always a price to pay for such deceit? And what true happiness can ever be achieved through an act of plagiarism?

Yesterday is a typical Curtis vehicle, amiable, and eminently watchable – but the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who displays none of the distinctive, visual flourishes I’ve come to expect from him, leaving me with the conviction that this could have been directed by just about anybody. While the earlier stretches are surely the funniest (there’s some nice interplay between Jack and his parents, played by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar), later developments, where Jack falls under the influence of heartless record executive, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), are not quite as assured.

And… there’s something that this film has in common with Curtis’s earlier effort, About Time: the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. Occasionally, I find myself thinking ‘Really?’ as some new revelation comes lurching out of the woodwork. Am I supposed to believe, for instance, that Jack manages to walk around for months without ever noticing that cigarettes no longer exist?

Still, this isn’t meant to be high art. Curtis is a talented storyteller, and for the most part this affable mix of comedy and music is perfectly entertaining. And, naturally, it has a soundtrack to die for. A shame then that it doesn’t give Danny Boyle more of a chance to show off his skills.

That would have been something to make a song and dance about.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

18/06/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Louis de Bernière’s novel was a huge hit when it was first published back in 1995, but – despite being something of a bookworm – I didn’t read it. The blurb just didn’t appeal; I’ve never been one for sentimentality. I didn’t see the film either, which – by all accounts – was even more schmaltzy. But, twenty-five years on, I’m feeling a bit more mellow and forgiving, and looking forward to finding out what the fuss was all about.

And I love this theatrical production, adapted by Rona Munro and directed by Melly Still. That is to say, I love the way it’s done: the kooky choreography and Mayou Trikerioti’s ingenious design. I’m not keen on the story – a predictably mawkish affair, covering every war-romance cliché out there – but the telling is rather wonderful.

We’re in Cephalonia, represented here by a huge rumpled metal backdrop, hanging skew-iff above the Iannis’s dainty herb garden, its sharp edges poised to destroy what they have grown. It dominates the stage, with light and video projections capturing the impact of war and natural disasters on the islanders’ lives.

Madison Clare is Pelagia Iannis, a young Greek woman whose first beau, Mandras (Ashley Gayle) leaves the island to join the war. When Cephalonia is occupied by the Italian army, Captain Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) moves in to her home, and – despite their initial hostility – the pair soon fall in love.

There’s more to it, of course – this is a saga that spans fifty years – but theirs is the central story, the focus of the tale. Which is a shame, in a way, because some of the subplots seem more interesting: the gay soldiers, for example, or young Lemoni (Kezrena James)’s money-making schemes. Still, both Clare and Mugnaioni give compelling performances, and their affair is tender and believable.

What makes this, though, is the sheer theatricality, the way it revels in its form. The transparent white sheets, for example, that capture the horrific images of soldiers frozen in ice; the lazer-beam-like strings conducting the actors through the caves; the brutality of the firing squad in all its strobe-lit choreographed glory.

I like the animals too: Luisa Guerreiro’s goat, with its plaintive bleating and simple crutch-aided walk; Elizabeth Mary Williams’ lithe and playful pine martin, Psipsina, with its trusting nature and comic responsiveness. These add a light touch to a sad tale, providing warmth and humour, and representing innocence.

The lighting (by Malcolm Rippeth) is inspired: all coppers and golds, evoking the gorgeousness of the Ionian sea and the might of a volcano, the reflections from the metal backdrop rippling across the auditorium.

This is an accomplished production, that soars above its source material.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Brightburn

17/06/19

I have often lamented the over-preponderence of superhero movies currently dominating the multiplexes. Those who share my misgivings may take some solace in Brightburn, which, although an unashamed slice of shlock, at least gives this increasingly played-out genre a fresh coat of paint (even if the colour in question is undoubtedly a dark shade of crimson). Produced by James Gunn, written by his brother, Brian, and his cousin, Mark, Brightburn is founded upon a simple question. What if somebody with superpowers was actually a psychopath?

Tori and Kyle Brever (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are the long married couple living in the wilds of Kansas, who have been trying for years to have a baby, with zero success. The late night crash-landing of a vehicle from outer space gives them the unexpected opportunity to adopt its sole passenger, a newborn baby. If this sounds familiar, it should do. It’s a cheeky borrowing of the Superman origin story.

The child, whom they name Brandon (Jackson Dunne), is fairly ‘normal’ until he hits puberty, when he starts to experience anger issues. Quite typical of an adolescent, I’ll grant you, but Brandon also begins to discover that he has some pretty amazing super powers – and, as they develop, so do various unsavoury habits that would give Clark Kent an attack of the vapours – like wearing a seedy-looking costume, spying on any girl who is unlucky enough to pique his interest, unleashing bloody mayhem on those who are rash enough to cross him, and leaving his monicker at the scene of the crime. (Be warned. The film focuses unflinchingly on visceral injury detail. Anyone who is twitchy about eyes and broken glass may want to look away at a key moment in the story.)

So yes, this is shlock, but it’s better produced and acted than most of the films that occupy this genre and manages to generate enough suspense to keep you hooked throughout. There are jump-scares too for those who like that kind of thing. Whilst the storyline doesn’t stand up to an awful lot of scrutiny, you do at least identify with Tori and Kyle’s inner conflict. Coming to terms with the fact that your adopted son is a brutal killer is not the kind of thing anybody would want to have to deal with, but deal with it they must.

And, as the body count steadily rises, they realise it’s time to take a stand…

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Sometimes Always Never

16/06/19

Scrabble can be a hard lesson for people like me, who are in love with language. We initially approach it, don’t we, thinking it will be an exercise in showing off our vocabulary, a chance to demonstrate how erudite we are? But we quickly learn that it’s really a brutal game of mathematics and that those players who have memorised a series of obscure, high-scoring two letter words are going to wipe the floor with us.

It’s this condumdrum that lies at the heart of Sometimes Always Never, a quirky and bitter-sweet story, written by Frank Cotterall Boyce and directed by Frank Hunter. It’s set in and around Formby, where Anthony Gormley’s distinctive sculptures haunt the sands, looking for all the world like bit-part players waiting for a chance to step into the action.

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a fascinating character, a retired tailor (the film’s title refers to the three buttons on a jacket and how you should wear them). He’s also a part time Scrabble-hustler. In the film’s downbeat opening, he meets up with his estranged son, Peter (Sam Riley) and the two of them go to have a look at the body of a dead man. Alan’s other son, Michael, you see, went missing years ago, following a heated argument over a game of… Scrabble, and Alan’s life since then has been dominated by his absence. The dead man turns out to be the missing son of Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim Mcinnery),  and, relieved, Alan heads home. But a couple of days later,  he arrives unnanounced at Peter’s house, where he pretty much moves in, much to the bafflement of Peter’s affable wife, Sue (Alice Lowe), and her teenage son, Jack (Louis Healy), with whom Alan ends up sharing a room. As the days pass and there is no sign of Alan going home, he begins to exert a peculiar influence over the family…

This is a deliciously oddball concoction which finds plenty of fun in the strange rituals that people employ in order to rub through their days. Nighy is as terrific as ever, though it does take a little while to adjust to the shock of hearing him speak with a Merseyside accent. Mind you, that also goes for Jenny Agutter, who manages to hide her own painfully plummy tones in a similar manner. It’s apparent from their first meeting that Alan and Margaret  have some chemistry between them.

Despite its charms, the film suffers a little from an inconsistency of tone. For instance, an early scene where Alan and Peter appear to be driving in a cardboard cutout car is a delight, but this approach isn’t used anywhere else – and a scene featuring Alexi Sayle as a random fisherman doesn’t really add anything to the story. Furthermore, any film that’s lucky enough to have Alice Lowe in the cast really ought to find a little more for her to do but, these reservations aside, this is mostly a cleverly judged cocktail of wry chuckles and poignant observations.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, then, but – in its own way – a satisfying and rather unique cinematic experience.

4 stars

Philip Caveney