Month: July 2015

Jurassic World

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19/07/15

In 1993, the release of Jurassic Park was a genuine game-changer. It was the first time that CGI had been convincingly used to create realistic-looking dinosaurs (rendering the pioneering stop-motion work of people like Ray Harryhausen obsolete virtually overnight.) It was directed by Steven Speilberg at the height of his powers and even if Michael Crichton’s source novel was just anther riff on one of his earlier ideas (Westworld), it nonetheless deserved to be the blockbuster it undoubtedly was. There were a couple of underwhelming sequels in the 90s that never really capitalised on the central premise and now here we are, more than twenty years later and Jurassic World has recently become the biggest grossing film in history.

I put off watching this one for quite a while, mostly because I suspected I’d be disappointed. But after all the furore about its earnings, I had to give it a shot. What becomes clear from the outset is that despite the care and effort that has been lavished on making those dinosaurs look absolutely real, no such effort has been made with the screenplay, which features so many ridiculous ideas, it’s hard to know quite where to start.

It’s twenty two years after the events of the first film and Jurassic World on Isla Nublar is now a successful theme park. Quite how the operators obtained the licence when so many of its previous visitors had been eaten by the exhibits is never mentioned. Let’s face it, in terms of safety records, this place makes Alton Towers look like a vicarage tea party. In a sort of amped-up version of Sea World, tourists flock to watch the antics of giant dinosaurs. Well, yes, who wouldn’t? But there’s a problem. Apparently, audiences are growing tired of seeing ‘ordinary dinosaurs.’ Yeah, like that would happen. With this in mind, the island’s boffins have been doing a bit of gene splicing and have come up with a bigger, louder, toothier creature called Indominus Rex, which they’re keeping in a secret enclosure on the island. Apparently, it occurred to nobody that this might not be the most sensible move ever.

Now we’re introduced to Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who operates in some kind of PR capacity at the park. Just to give her something more to worry about, she’s tasked with looking after her two cuddlesome nephews who are on holiday, escaping from their parent’s marital problems. You can’t help wondering how Claire ever got her job; she’s frankly useless at PR and even more useless at looking after kids, making one bad decision after another, each one seemingly intended to plunge her luckless nephews deeper and deeper into the brown stuff. It gets worse. The woman doesn’t even have the sense to take off her high heels when running from a dinosaur! Luckily, she has hunky Owen (Chris Pratt) to fall back on. He’s an animal expert who is currently training three velociraptors to work as a team – sort of like a Dino Whisperer. But he’s somewhat hampered by the ambitions of Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) a ruthless park contractor who is such a pantomime villain, he may as well have the word ‘dodgy’ tattooed on his forehead. Hoskins sees the velociraptors as potential military weapons and is clearly biding his time, waiting for the right moment to step in and take control of them.

That moment arrives when the Indominus Rex escapes (honestly, who saw that coming?) and starts gleefully chomping down on the tourists. It’s now up to Claire and Owen to sort out the situation…

Look, I get that Jurassic World is a family film, one that has to appeal to viewers from twelve to twelvety and I can’t really argue with the kind of success it’s enjoying, but honestly, how did this damp squib of a film become the runaway success of the year? There’s not an original idea in it, all the best sequences riffing on tropes that featured in the original. The lack of chemistry between Dallas Howard and Pratt is a real problem (a scene where they pause mid-carnage for a quick snog is rewarded with gales of laughter from the audience.) And perhaps most damning of all, there is no sense of peril here – remember the knockout scene in Jurassic Park where the kids were pursued into a kitchen by the velociraptors? You actually felt they could die in there. There’s nothing here to equal that – the two kids in this movie experience all kinds of dangers, but you never feel they’re being threatened by anything more lethal than a shedload of pixels. It’s by no means an awful film, it’s just a bit… meh.

I’m looking forward to the next one in the series, where Dallas Howard, Pratt and the entire board of Jurassic World end up in court, accused of causing the deaths of hundreds of innocent tourists. Now that would put a different spin on the franchise!

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Love and Mercy

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11/07/15

Music biopics can be perilously tricky affairs. Far too often, they come across merely as karaoke reruns of the original events and only a very few ever succeed (or even bother) to try and probe beneath the shiny surface. Happily, Love and Mercy belongs in the latter category. Bill Pohlad’s film offers two Brian Wilsons for the price of one.

In the 1960’s-set first strand, a bulked up Paul Dano does an uncanny job of portraying pop music’s most celebrated tortured genius, complete with the chubby bewildered features and the pudding basin haircut. The recreations of the band’s early concerts and TV appearances are uncannily accurate. After the Beachboys’ initial successes with their surfing songs, Brian suffers a debilitating panic attack on an airplane, and elects to stay in the studio and create music while the rest of the band head off to Japan on tour.

In the second, 1990’s-set strand, we meet another Brian Wilson, post nervous breakdown and in the clutches of bullying psychiatrist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giametti in a fright wig, looking strangely like Melvyn Bragg.) In these sequences, Brian is played by John Cusack, who is of course a very accomplished actor – but he  looks nothing like Wilson, or for that matter, Dano. The conclusion has to be that the director was trying to make a statement about his subject’s schizophrenic nature but I couldn’t help feeling that he’d have done better to stick with Dano throughout.

Once the two time frames are established the film cuts effortlessly back and forth, between two major stories. In the 60’s, Brian’s mounting confusion alienates him from his fellow band members and family – but here the film manages to nail the creative process of recording better than most other films I’ve seen. It’s wonderful to watch as a pop masterpiece like God Only Knows is assembled virtually note by note, before finally blossoming into the sublime finished product we know and love.

In the second storyline, a heavily sedated Brian, always accompanied by Landy and his henchmen, wanders into a car showroom to purchase a Cadillac and makes a connection with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks.) The two of them start to date and Melinda quickly begins to realise that Brian is under Landy’s control, every bit as much as he suffered under the tyranny of his abusive father, Murray. But how can she extricate him from his self-inflicted woes? And does Brian even want to be rescued?

This is by no means a perfect film, but it’s intriguing and compelling enough to keep you hooked to the end and there’s some fabulous sounds to enjoy along the way. At the film’s conclusion we get the added bonus of the real Brian Wilson performing the wistful song from which the film takes its title. You don’t have to be a Beachboys fan, but it certainly helps.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Skriker

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4/07/15

Royal Exchange Theatre/MIF15, Manchester

The Skriker is a screaming, hurtling explosion of a play, quite unlike anything I have seen staged at the Royal Exchange before.

I’ve never seen the Exchange like this before either; it’s been transformed to accommodate this play. From the moment we enter the beautiful old building, we know something’s different: there’s an avenue of trees casting a dappled green light, and the glass theatre-pod in the middle of the Great Hall is shrouded in black.

We’re in the first gallery; as we settle into our seats and peer down into the gloom, it takes us a while to notice that all 400 of the stage-level seats have been removed, making way for a series of rough wooden tables, laid out like the spokes of a broken wheel. It feels, somehow, like being inside a tree.

Although our seats give a us a clear overview of the performance space, the intention, clearly, is an immersive experience: there are chairs at most of the tables, and about sixty audience members thus become part of the set. They are, then, more than witnesses: they are complicit and involved. If they chose to, they could intervene…

I’ve long been a fan of Caryl Churchill’s work; she asks difficult questions without obvious answers, and seems to revel in the awkwardness of rejecting clear-cut rhetoric. Yes, she’s political, but she’s not interested in soundbites or tub-thumping. The world is more complex than that, and so are our reactions to it. This refusal to tread a familiar path is reflected in the theatrical form. Churchill’s plays do not conform to any accepted norms – and they’re not always easy to watch.

The Skriker, certainly, is a challenging piece. The eponymous role, played here with great relish and enormous talent by Maxine Peake, is a kind of ancient fairy, a damaged, polluted, angry spirit, raging at humans for destroying the earth. Josie and Lily, two troubled teenagers, become the focus of the Skriker’s fury, forced to confront the calamity that climate change has wrought.

The banquet scene, set down in Fairyland, is central to the play and it’s here that the themes are crystallised. Josie, propelled into this underworld by greed and curiosity, participates enthusiastically in the feast, even when an anguished woman reveals that the glistening platters are actually laden with parts of her body: ‘That’s my head!’ It makes no difference; the revellers continue to gorge, even as they witness her destruction, their dancing becoming ever wilder and more reckless. The woman implores Josie not to drink the wine, making clear that, if she does, she too will be destroyed. But no one heeds the warning. It’s not the subtlest of metaphors and – in a play this complicated – that’s no bad thing. Here, it seems, is a central premise we can use to inform our understanding of other, more opaque ideas; here, we have a clear allegory for mankind’s wanton destruction of the planet, continuing, as we do, to drive, fly, hunt rare animals, overfish the seas, cut down rain forests and frack our blighted earth

It’s an important play: frightening and angry and funny and weird. Maxine Peake is perfectly cast as the shape-shifting fairy; she inhabits each persona so completely, it’s a wonder to behold. It doesn’t matter, really, that she overshadows the younger, less experienced actors playing Josie and Lily (Laura Elsworthy and Juma Shorkah respectively), as this was always meant to be the Skriker’s play. The ensemble of wraiths and spirits embody freakish malevolence and anxiety, and the choir cements the savage beauty of the other-worldly air.

A full five stars for this one, then, but if you go to watch it, be prepared: this is not light-hearted entertainment. It’s hard work – but it’s worth it.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Amy

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4/07/15 

Home, Manchester

We all think we know the story of Amy Winehouse – a staggeringly gifted teenage singer/songwriter makes waves on the jazz scene, rises meteorically after the recording of breakthrough album Back To Black, then plunges into a tragic downward spiral fuelled by addiction to drugs and alcohol. And yes, that’s pretty much what we get in Amy. But director Asif Kapadia allows us to see her story through fresh eyes, to fully appreciate what a tragic waste of talent was here. Kapadia’s approach (as with his much acclaimed motor racing doc, Senna) is to painstakingly assemble an intricate collage of material from every stage of his subject’s life, incorporating interviews with all the major players in her story, from those who evidently loved and cherished her to those who fed shamelessly on her rising star and hitched it to their own particular wagon. It’s a labour of love that took three years to assemble.

It’s all here, from grainy home movie footage of a young Amy, already displaying exceptional talent as she performs Happy Birthday for her best friend, a lithe fresh-faced Amy performing brilliantly in the intimate setting of a jazz club, to the tragic scene of her stumbling onstage at a massive outdoor festival, drunk and unwilling to perform a single note. Through the course of the film, heroes and villains inevitably emerge. Original manager Nick Shymansky clearly worshipped the ground she walked on, but had to step aside when she demanded that he leave his employer, Simon Fuller, to concentrate on her. Bessie mate, Juliette Ashby was clearly always there to fight her corner, no matter what she had done. Her husband Blake Fielder-Civil professes he only had her best interests at heart, but with every word reveals himself as an opportunistic freeloader – and the less said about Amy’s father, Mitch, the better. A scene where he brings a camera crew to the remote holiday island she has fled to, (mostly because of unwelcome press intrusion), is frankly one of the film’s most shocking moments. Mitch has loudly complained that the documentary has ‘stitched him up’ but the truth is right up there on the screen, for all to see. And then, of course, there’s the paparazzi. Scenes of Amy fleeing from a pack of rabid cameramen amidst a blizzard of flash photography, make the hackles rise and almost instil a sense of shame that we belong to the same species as these creatures. How can they live with themselves? Didn’t they realise they were hounding her to her own destruction?

A word about the venue. Home has taken over from the Cornerhouse as Manchester’s home for independent cinema (as well as boasting two theatres, several bars, exhibition space and a cafe) and what a fine job it’s doing! It has five state-of-the-art screens with prices far more reasonable than the multiplexes and the friendliest staff I’ve ever encountered. This special showing took place in the spacious setting of Cinema One (air conditioned – a blessing on one of the hottest days of the year) and was followed by a Q and A with co-producer George Pank. Annoyingly, a pressing engagement elsewhere precluded us from actually staying on for this, but it’s hard to know what it might have added. Any questions we may have had about the career of Amy Winehouse are answered comprehensively in this brilliant, hard-hitting and ultimately heartbreaking documentary. Don’t you dare miss it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

London Road

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28/06/15

London Road is an extraordinary film. Although clearly indebted to its theatrical roots, this is a truly cinematic work – and quite unlike anything I have seen before.

Centred around the infamous Ipswich murders of 2006, when five prostitutes were killed over the course of a few months, London Road tells the stories of the local residents: their discomfort at their street becoming part of the red-light district; their horror at the murders; their reactions to the revelation that the killer was Steven Wright, a neighbour of theirs. Through verbatim accounts, drawn from interviews conducted with the real life residents of the street , we learn of a community torn apart – and then, ultimately, uniting to reclaim its heart.

And it’s a musical.

Actually, it’s not really a musical, as such, but it is mostly sung – and the effect is stunning. The dialogue is faithfully reproduced, with every ‘um’ and ‘ah’ included; every hesitation, interruption, exclamation rigorously documented in the lines. The language dictates the rhythms, and the score stretches and amplifies the natural cadences of speech, creating a kind of hyper-realism that is utterly compelling. Some lines are repeated to create a kind of chorus or refrain, thus reinforcing some of the more prevalent ideas (‘He could be one of us…’).

There’s no driving narrative here, no one character whose tale defines the story. It’s exactly what you might imagine a series of interviews to amount to: a collage of disparate accounts. And yet, this collage serves to create a very clear whole picture. There are conflicting emotions, as the prostitutes move away from the area to somewhere where they feel safer, and the residents begin to take a pride in where they live again. ‘I know it’s awful,’ says Julie (Olivia Colman), as she looks around the resurgent neighbourhood, ‘but I’d like to shake his hand.’ It’s an uncomfortable truth, made more so by the brooding presence of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood) walking through the street, untouched and unobserved, clutching a balloon like a hopeful child. No one can condone the murder of these troubled women, but none of us would like them working where we live.

There are some big names attached to this film: Tom Hardy makes a fleeting appearance as a taxi driver obsessed with serial killers. But it doesn’t feel right to single anyone out: this is an ensemble performance, with all parts contributing fully to the whole.

It’s a game-changer, I think.

Go see it.

5 stars

Susan Singfield