Month: February 2016

Trumbo

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16/02/16

Despite a couple of well-deserved Oscar nominations, Trumbo didn’t trouble the multiplexes for very long at all – perhaps it was a tad too political to draw in the crowds, even with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in the lead role, but you can still catch it on the big screen at independent cinemas (it’s showing at Home, Manchester until the 23rd Feb.) It’s essentially a biopic of screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo and if the name doesn’t mean an awful lot to you, certainly some of the movies he wrote will – Roman Holiday, anyone? Spartacus? Exodus? 

The film begins in the late 1940s, when Trumbo is one of the most respected and successful screenwriters in the Hollywood cannon. He is also, like many of his friends,  a member of the Communist Party. As the ‘House of Un-American Activities Committee comes into being, such people are increasingly regarded with hostility and suspicion. They are seen by many as the ‘communist threat,’ secretly planning to overthrow the USA. Such suspicions are further fuelled by the scurrilous (and openly racist) rants of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hoppa (played here with venomous relish by Helen Mirren.) Trumbo is the man with the guts to stand up to the committee and for his pains is imprisoned for several years, even though he hasn’t actually broken any laws. On his release, his career in tatters, he’s  obliged to ghostwrite cheap movies for the unscrupulous producer Frank King (John Goodman) for a fraction of his former salary. He goes on to create similar opportunities for his other friends who have been similarly shafted, in each case ascribing authorship to a non-existent screenwriter. But when one of his films, The Brave One, is nominated for an Oscar, it’s clear that something has to change…

Biopics are tricky creatures, but Director Hal Roach does a good job with this one, aided no end by a scorching performance by Cranston  – his chain-smoking, wisecracking personification of the great man never fails to entertain, even as it informs. Roach has also made a decent fist of casting actors to play movie icons – Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific as Edward G. Robinson and Dean O Gorman’s turn as the young Kirk Douglas is extraordinary – just check out the sequences from Spartacus where he interacts on screen with Woody Strode – you literally cannot see the joins.

More importantly, perhaps, Trumbo takes a cold hard look at one of the most shameful eras in American history – and with the irresistible rise of Donald Trump to provide contemporary resonance, its message has never been more timely. Do take the opportunity to see this film, it’s really is worth the effort.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Deadpool

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13/02/16

The trouble with Deadpool is, it wants to have its cake and eat it. ‘Look at me!’ it shouts, ‘I’m a superhero movie but I’m different to the rest!’ And maybe there’s a certain amount of truth in that statement, but when the ‘difference’ is a 15 certificate rather than the usual 12A and a series of knob gags directed straight to camera, well, that’s really not enough to justify our time in the cinema. I’ve had a sneaking admiration for Ryan Reynolds since the brilliant low budget indie, Buried, and he’s been the prime mover in getting this ultra-violent, potty-mouthed franchise onto the big screen, but really, I expected a bit more than this.

Reynolds plays former Special Forces Op, Wade Wilson, now reduced to beating up hoods to earn beer money. His world changes when he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and a love affair ensues, but it’s cut horribly short when Wade discovers he’s in the late stages of inoperable cancer. When he’s offered the chance of salvation, the opportunity to be turned into a ‘superhero’ he reluctantly goes along with it. But the process is a slow and painful one, administered by the psychopathic Ajax (Ed Skrein) and once transformed (and hideously scarred into the process) ‘Deadpool’ swears revenge on the man who has turned him into a superman.

I don’t want to be completely negative about the film. I enjoyed the opening slo-mo credits sequence, (if the rest of it had been as classy, this would be a kinder review) and just occasionally a few of the wisecracks actually made me smirk. But the 15 rating allows for quite horrible levels of carnage and when two characters from the X-Men franchise wander in trying to enlist Deadpool to their team, it starts to feel as formulaic as any of the other spandex-clad offerings out there. Fight sequences (and there are a lot of them) seem to go on for ages and watching indestructible people being repeatedly punched in  the head really isn’t my idea of fun. For all it’s much-vaunted ‘originality,’ the film ultimately comes down to a man rescuing his girlfriend from the bad guys, a trope we’ve seen a gazillion times before.

I’d be the first to admit that this probably wasn’t aimed at the likes of me. Advance word is that Deadpool has wracked up impressive viewing figures in the USA and a sequel is inevitable. I for one, won’t be in any hurry to repeat the experience. This is a big, loud, slick slice of mayhem, with occasional signs that suggest it could have been so much more than that.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Goosebumps

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07/02/16

This movie, based around the books of the prolific teen author, R.L. Stine, has been in the works for a very long time. Originally slated as a vehicle for Tim Burton, back in 1998, it has bumped around in limbo since then but finally gets a cinematic outing courtesy of director Rob Letterman. The wait has been worth it, because this is an unqualified delight that takes just enough time to set out its stall, before plunging us headlong into a gallumphing chase that rarely loses momentum.

After the recent death of his father, Zach (Dylan Minette) moves from New York to Madison, Delaware with his mother, Gale (Amy Ryan) the newly appointed vice-principal at the local high school. Zach soon notices the attractive girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush) but is quickly herded off by her seemingly stern father, played by Jack Black. But appearances can be deceptive. It turns out that Hannah’s dad is the reclusive author, R.L. Stine and that his house is a repository for his original manuscripts, each of which has to be kept locked in order to prevent the creatures captured on its pages from coming to life. Zach manages to accidentally release the monster from Stine’s The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and from that point, everything goes haywire… pretty soon, Madison is overrun with ravenous werewolves, shambling zombies and homicidal garden gnomes.

It’s an adorable premise and it’s expertly orchestrated; scenes where ink literally bleeds from the pages of the manuscripts to create the monsters of Stine’s imagination are particularly impressive. Malevolent ventriloquist’s doll, Slappy (from Night of the Living Dummy – also voiced by Black) is cleverly portrayed as Stine’s altar ego. The witty screenplay by Darren Lemke shows a clear understanding of the way a writer’s mind works – I loved the scene where Stine, obliged to write another story that is the only hope of salvaging a desperate situation, keeps dithering over the first line of the story. Goosebumps may not be profound or meaningful, but it’s hard to bring off this kind of fantasy storytelling successfully and here’s one of those rare attempts that succeeds on nearly every level. The CGI creatures are nicely done and a climactic scene with most of the cast barricaded into the school gymnasium brings everything to a suitable conclusion. There’s also a late plot twist concerning Hannah that I didn’t see coming.

If you’re already familiar with Stine’s work, it’ll be an added bonus, because most of his creatures are featured here, but it clearly doesn’t matter too much. I somehow managed to miss the books completely, but I liked the film a lot and would recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of harmless escapist fun. Enjoy!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Shrek – The Musical

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02/02/16

Lowry, Salford Quays

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years or so, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the runaway franchise that is Shrek. Originally an illustrated novel by William Steig, it became a hit animation for Dreamworks in 2001. It went on to spawn several (inferior) sequels and of course, in 2008, a Broadway musical. This is the original London production, which comes to the end of a two year tour in Salford, so this may be your last chance to see it for a while.

Obviously it’s a family show, aimed very much at the youngsters in the audience, but it’s slick and sharp enough to entrance their parents too and it was clear from the word go that the packed audience at the Lowry was having an absolute ball with it. The film’s wry twist on the classic fairy tale is faithfully preserved, there are eye-popping costumes and witty songs. You have to admire Dean Chisnall’s performance as the titular ogre as he performs in what looks like half a ton of latex without ever breaking stride. The supporting cast are uniformly good but I particularly enjoyed Gerard Carey’s tour de force as pint-sized villain Lord Farquaad. I’ve seen this kind of stunt done before but rarely with such exuberance and never with such laugh-out-loud chutzpah.

Fans of puppetry will be entranced by the show’s huge dragon, which swoops convincingly around the stage (whilst singing!) and had younger members of the audience gasping with wonder. Shrek – The Musical is a magical presentation in every respect and the long touring schedule means that every detail has been drilled to perfection, so despite a lengthy running time, it never loses momentum. Oh and don’t feel you have to have children in tow, because there really is something here for everyone.

Please note that the show starts at 7 pm, not 7.30 (a fact that was clearly lost on large members of last night’s audience). It’s at the Lowry until February 20th. Go, enjoy. Trust me, you’ll love it.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Macbeth

Clemmie Sveaas, Jessie Oshodi and Ana Beatriz Meireles in Macbeth. Photo by Richard Hubert SmithJohn Heffernan (Macbeth) and Anna Maxwell Martin (Lady Macbeth) in Macbeth. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith (2)

Home, Manchester

02/02/16

OK, so it’s yet another Shakespeare adaptation. And it’s Macbeth too – one of my favourites, but certainly not one that’s under-performed. Its length and relative simplicity make it a school curriculum staple, so regular airings are always assured: it’s an easy one to sell out.

But it’s this ubiquity that means it’s in danger of being – dare I say it? -boring. I’ve watched and read this play so often that, unless the director is bringing a fresh eye to it, I really don’t want to see it again. Especially after the recent much-acclaimed-but-actually-rather-dull film version, by Justin Kerzel (see previous review).

Luckily, Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin’s production (for Home, Young Vic and Birmingham Rep) certainly brings that fresh eye. It’s not perfect by any means – there are a few jarring moments, and some lines that seem misjudged (that long pause between ‘hold’ and ‘enough’, for example, turning the latter into capitulation instead of a defiant battle cry), but it’s dirty and dangerous, just like it needs to be – and it’s sharp and witty  too.

It’s set in a version of the present, in a stark underpass, as grim as night. There are flickering fluorescent lights, and a sense of menace prevails. The body count is high, and murder is rife; the corpses are wrapped in plastic and tossed aside quite casually. This is certainly a brutal world.

And the witches. They’re my favourite thing. They’re twisted, haunted mannequins, moving their inhuman limbs in a foul and fearsome dance. They’re genuinely frightening, like horror-story dolls – sometimes pregnant, sometimes breast-feeding – and their gruesome game of Blind Man’s Buff makes the Macduff family murder a truly awful act.

The banquet scene is nicely done; Lady Macbeth’s madness is also a high point. It’s a strong production: daring and innovative and certainly not dull.

Highly recommended – although I suspect it will divide opinion.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield