Month: June 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

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26/06/16

Welcome back to the world of Roland Emmerich. Hard to believe that its been 20 years since Independence Day elevated him to the position of head go-to guy for apocalyptic devastation. Since then, he’s presided over a slate of similarly themed destructathons – The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, 2012, with a couple of disasters of a different persuasion thrown in for good measure – The Patriot, which played fast and loose with American history  and Anonymous, a film which seriously posited the notion that William Shakespeare was an illiterate actor who got somebody else to write all his plays for him. Now, Emmerich finally revisits his biggest hit with mixed results. Could it have been a coincidence that it was released on the day the UK decided to vote for Brexit? I doubt it. Disasters have a tendency to cling together.

It’s been twenty years since those pesky aliens took on Planet Earth and there has been unprecedented peace and prosperity for the world ever since. (And if you’ll swallow that, you’ll swallow anything.) But of course, it was only a matter of time before the space lizards came back for another go, an event presaged by former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) experiencing some strange visions. All the stars of the original resurface here, with the notable exception of Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) who we are informed has ‘perished on a test flight.’ Luckily, his son, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), a chip off the old block if ever there was one, is on hand to carry on his late father’s work, despite having rivalry issues with reckless young pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is in Africa, where he hooks up with Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is trying to decipher some strange alien writing that seems to hint at unfinished business…

To be honest, it’s pretty pointless to say any more about the plot which is frankly, bonkers. (It’s saying something when the alien invasion elements are the most credible part of the story). Of course, what Emmerich has always excelled at are the wide screen scenes of carnage, which at times resemble the visionary paintings of John Martin. A set-piece where one major city is unceremoniously dumped on top of another is, it has to be said, pretty spectacular. Goldblum also earns his money as comic relief, wandering around in the background making flip remarks as yet another landmark is blown to smithereens.

And yet, it’s really not enough to salvage this from it’s failings – lamentable dialogue, plot holes you could fly a jumbo-sized spacecraft through and some cheesy statements about mankind’s ability to survive against all the odds. What’s more, the premise of a giant Queen alien presiding over a ‘hive’ of extra terrestrials is too close to James Cameron’s Aliens for comfort. A final chase across the salt flats in pursuit of a busload of kids (and a cute dog) is the point where everything falls to pieces. At this point, even Goldblum looks embarrassed.

So, worth seeing? Yes, provided you can overlook the ridiculous plot and the truly awful dialogue. And a worthy successor to the original film? Nah, not really. It’s as if Emmerich has decided to crank everything up to maximum – as though his motto is ‘bigger is better.’ Why have a dozen spaceships when you can have three hundred of them?  Why blow up one monument when you can destroy a dozen? Ironically, I still remember the impact of watching the White House blown to smithereens in the first film, but for all the bombast on display here, I doubt that I’ll remember this for more than a day or so.

The film ends with a clumsy attempt to set up a Part Three, which I have to say, I won’t be holding my breath for. Enough, already. Try something new.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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The Comedy Store

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24/06/16

We have rarely been in such dire need of a good laugh.

It’s June 24th and we’ve recently heard about Brexit. There’s a sense of gathering doom in the air, so we decide to head down to the Comedy Store in a desperate search for something to lighten the mood. Luckily, we’ve chosen the right night to do it as this is hands-down, the best gig we’ve seen here in a very long time.

Our compere for the evening is John Maloney, who I haven’t seen before. He’s clearly in no mood to take prisoners and deals harshly with the members of an over-enthusiastic stag party who keep shouting out inappropriate comments through his introduction. Before much longer, the ringleaders are led out by a couple of bouncers and they don’t return. Maloney offers some spectacularly crude observations about married life that stay just the right side of funny.

The first act proper is John Warburton, an affable, bespectacled comic with a nice line in audience participation. He soon has the crowd on his side and laughing along with him as he takes us through a protracted piece about how his wife gave him the ‘wonderful gift’ of a new pregnancy for his birthday – trouble is, he was expecting an iPhone. There’s also a surreal story about potatoes purchased from Aldi, which turn feral and take control of his kitchen. The story finally culminates in a terrible joke – but it was great fun getting there.

Next up there’s a ten minute slot from relative newbie, Tom Taylor. He’s a revelation, shambling on with an electric keyboard under his arm, gurning and giggling neurotically, fiddling endlessly with a microphone stand and delivering a series of quirky little songs, with playfully clunky lyrics. He’s absolutely brilliant. Could this character-driven comedy work over a longer set? Probably, particularly if he’s got other personae hidden up his sleeve. But for the ten minutes he’s on, he has everyone laughing fit to bust and goes straight into the file marked ‘one to watch.’

Zoe Lyons is up next and her confident and assured set confirms that this is going to be a very good night indeed. Her scattershot subjects include her reluctance to share food in tapas bars, trying to pack a suitcase in Amsterdam, whilst stoned and her recent experiences in the beauty department of Harvey Nichols. “What is your daily cleansing routine?” she’s asked by one ‘beauty consultant. ‘Well, I look in the mirror in the morning and if there’s no egg on my chin, no gravy in my eyebrows and no vomit in my hair, I’m good to go!’ Priceless. Great too, to see a female comic in a venue that doesn’t always feature its fair share of women performers.

After a short break to top up our alcohol levels, there’s a beautifully crafted set from Paul Sinha, who as well as being a stand up comedian, also plays a role as a ‘Catcher’ on the TV quiz show, The Chase. (He also does a cracking radio programme called History Revision, which is definitely worth seeking out online.) Sinha’s comedy is clever and incisive, built around his self-proclaimed role as the UKs only gay-Asian-quiz-show-host-stand-up with a predilection for rough sex with aggressive Northern men. He tells us he’ll be in his element tonight, getting a cab back to his hotel. Excellent stuff.

On any other night, headliner Jarred Christmas would have been considered a triumph, but after the embarrassment of riches we’ve already enjoyed, his set feels somehow like a bit of an anti-climax. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing to fault in his delivery and his frenetic, super-charged persona, it’s just that much of the material he employs here (the potential minefield of being a parent, for instance) seems a little over familiar. But when the night’s most underwhelming act still manages to qualify as ‘pretty good’ you know you’ve attended a great show. The Comedy Store doesn’t always live up to its much-vaunted reputation, but tonight, when it was sorely needed, happily, it did.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps 2016 tour - Olivia Greene as Pamela & Richard Ede as Hannay (c) Dan Tsantilis

21/06/16

Lyric Theatre, The Lowry

Poor Richard Hannay – framed for the murder of a mysterious young woman  he’s only recently met, he’s had to go on the run to a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands in order to prove his innocence. But danger lies in wait for him at every step…

Hannay is of course the great British hero of The 39 Steps. John Buchan’s classic novel was first published in 1915 and famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. This touring production, originally adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2006 comes direct from the West End and it’s easy to see the qualities that have pulled in packed audiences ever since. With a cast of just four actors, this is played primarily for laughs and conducted at breakneck pace with plenty of lightning-fast costume changes and a repeated motif of effects that go slightly wrong. It’s clear too that this is much more Hitchcock’s version of the story than Buchan’s – film fans will spot plenty of references to Hitch’s best known movies thrown into the mix. (In a shadow puppet sequence depicting a chase across the hills, keep an eye out for one particularly recognisable silhouette.)

Richard Ede makes an appealing pipe-smoking, Harris tweed-wearing  hero, while his three fellow actors virtually run themselves into the ground providing a whole wealth of supporting characters for him to interact with. In the cavernous setting of the Lyric theatre, it was sometimes a struggle to make out every line of dialogue (I would have loved to see this in the more intimate setting of the studio theatre, but you can’t fault the producers for wanting to pitch this to the biggest possible audiences) and there’s no doubting the consummate professionalism on show here, nor the wit of Barlow’s script. It’s probably also true to say that when this production first aired many of the staging techniques on show would have seemed ground-breaking – now, they are part of the everyday language of contemporary theatre.

That said, this offers a fun and entertaining night out for lovers of adventure and comedy alike. It’s on untilSaturday 25th June.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Enfield Haunting

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19/06/16

A recent viewing of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, which utilises elements from the real life case of the Enfield Hauntings, prompted us to seek out this stylish three part series originally commissioned by Sky Living and now available to view via Amazon. Where Wan’s film turns the histrionics up to number 11, this offers a much more credible and absorbing version of the events, allowing viewers to make up their own minds as to whether there was something  genuinely supernatural about them or whether they were simply an elaborate and brilliantly executed hoax.

Maurice Grosse (Timothy Spall) is the psychic investigator enlisted in 1977, to look into the claims of the Hodgson family, who claim to have been plagued by poltergeist phenomenon in their little house in Enfield. Grosse and his wife, Betty (Juliet Stevenson) are still trying to come to terms with the recent death of their own daughter in a motorbike accident, so they are clearly quite receptive to the idea of life after death, as is author Guy Playfair (Matthew MacFadyen) fresh from investigating some mysterious supernatural happenings in South America. Though initially sceptical, he soon changes his tune once he’s been hurled bodily across a room. Most of the spooky phenomena are centred around teenager Janet Hodgson (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who is prone to talking in the gruff voice of one of the house’s earlier tenants, an old man who died there some years earlier and who’s name has been inexplicably changed from Bill to Joe. But compared  to the liberties Wan’s writers took with the story, that seems a minor niggle.

Directed by Krystoffer Nyholm (The Killing) and cannily scripted by the real Guy Playfair (together with Joshua St Johnson), this version makes Wan’s effort look like the overcooked hokum it actually is. There’s a skilfully orchestrated sense of mounting dread throughout and I loved the open-ended coda, which steadfastly refuses to confirm or deny the existence of the supernatural.

If you haven’t caught up with this yet, do – it’s an accomplished three parter. Little wonder that it is Sky Living’s most successful production to date.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Conjuring 2

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18/06/16

James Wan has been at it again. After the twin successes of The Conjuring and Annabelle, comes the imaginatively titled Conjuring 2, in which paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) take on a couple of ‘real-life’cases with their customary mixture of guts and cheesiness. For the film’s pre-credit sequence, we’re in The Amityville House, (the Warren’s most famous case) where Lorraine encounters the unwelcome attentions of a grinning nun and where she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen to her hubby.

After the credits, we move swiftly on to merry England (Enfield to be more precise) where single Mum, Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’ Connor) and her four kids are getting some unwelcome attention of their own, particularly young Janet (Madison Wolfe) who is the recipient of some rather scary poltergeist phenomenon. (Interestingly, the story has been filmed as recently as 2015 in The Enfield Haunting, a TV mini series which offered a much more credible version of the story. It’s probably important to mention here that in real life, the Warrens had hardly any connection with the Enfield case whatsoever.) The story is set in  1977 but the Hodgsons appear to be suffering levels of squalor more reminiscent of the 1930s – peeling wallpaper, broken furniture and the like. Furthermore, down in their cellar, they have what must be the worst case of damp in history – you don’t need a spanner down there so much as a snorkel and flippers.

Despite the inaccuracies, these early scenes are surprisingly effective; Wan manages to kindle genuine tension in the telling and there are some cleverly handled set pieces that will have even the hardiest viewer grabbing for their neighbour’s hand. But somebody needs to tell him that less is more. After the first half hour or so, the story begins to kick in and as a consequence proceedings move increasingly into the realms of the risible. What could easily have been a four star movie, slips steadily down the ratings, and by the final half hour, you’re as likely to be hooting with laughter as cringing in terror. What’s more, the Warrens turn out to be the most terminally irritating duo of God botherers ever to visit a haunted house. A scene where Ed croons an Elvis song to the Hodgson kids seems to have wandered in from a different movie entirely, while Lorraine has an annoying habit of finding herself wandering about in an alternate world, where ghostly exposition keeps rearing its ugly head.

The film’s ultimate plot twist will have you gasping not in shock but in disbelief that anybody thought we’d swallow such an unlikely idea, even in a ghost story and by then, it’s way too late to rescue this nonsense, which is a shame. Wan clearly has a real talent for scare movies and if he would just exercise a little more self control, he could be creating films of real quality. As it stands this is a major disappointment.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Nice Guys

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12/06/16

Shane Black is an interesting fellow. A former screenwriter who’s status went meteoric after the runaway success of the Lethal Weapon franchise, his career went into the doldrums after later multi-million dollar scripts failed to put bums on seats in enough numbers to earn back the huge advances. But in 2005, his first film as  director, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang earned his some much-needed brownie points (at least from the critics, even if it didn’t pull in huge crowds)  and his subsequent helming of Iron Man 3 made him, once again, a bankable name, a big hitter.

So, he has the chance to start over and here’s The Nice Guys, which has all the classic Shane Black tropes: essentially a buddie movie, it features two mismatched characters bumbling their way through a complicated plot, milking some genuine big laughs along the way and pausing every so often for a insanely high-powered, ultra violent action sequence. Throw in the evocative 70s setting and this is everything that Inherent Vice could have been if it had bothered to incorporate a decent plot.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a former cop, now fallen on hard times and reduced to beating up people for a living, something he does to the very best of his ability. One such person is Holland Marsh (Ryan Gosling) possibly the world’s most inept Private Detective, but when it transpires that both men are involved in looking for the same missing person, a young runaway who has recently been linked to the tragic death of infamous porn star, Misty Mountains, it seems expedient to join forces and pool their ‘expertise.’ Sadly, this is something that’s in rather short supply, but luckily Marsh’s precocious teenage daughter Holly (an appealing performance by Angourie Rice) has enough chutzpah to help them through. As the plot unfolds it transpires that there’s a conspiracy at the heart of the story that goes all the way to the top of the slippery pole.

Crowe and Gosling make an appealing double act. Gosling is particularly good, wringing every last drop out of his assured comic performance, (this is a man who can’t break a window without severing a major vein) while Crowe is, for once, actually rather likeable as a bluff, hard-hitting guy with anger management issues. While you could argue that the film is essentially a big piece of fluff, what fabulously accomplished fluff it is! It breezes effortlessly through its 116 minutes running time and actually leaves you wanting more. A coda suggests that there could be a second adventure for these two and on the form of this one, I’d say that’s a decent suggestion.

You’ll come out relishing some of Marsh’s more idiotic lines. A particular favourite? ‘Yeah, well you know who else was ‘just following orders?’ Hitler!’

Priceless.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Bird

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10/06/16

Studio Theatre, Royal Exchange

While The Night Watch continues to enthral audiences in the Royal Exchange’s main theatre, down in the more intimate setting of The Studio, you’ll find Bird by Katherine Chandler, the winner of a judge’s award in the 2013 Bruntwood Prize Competition. Chandler is playwright in residence at Sherman Cymru Theatre and her play is a bleak examination of families and friendship.

Ava (Georgia Henshaw) has grown up in care, after being thrown out by her mother, Claire (Siwan Morris), mostly because she’s accused Claire’s partner of abuse. Now Ava lives in a children’s home somewhere in the backside of South Wales. Soon, she will be sixteen and sent out to fend for herself – but where is she supposed to go?

Essentially this is a series of short, punchy duologues – Ava confronting her mother, who has moved on and now has a two-year-old daughter to lavish all her attention on – Ava confiding in her best friend, the mysterious Tash (Rosie Sheehy); and there are some telling exchanges with two very different men – naïve teenager, Dan (Connor Allen), who confides that he might just be looking for something more than casual sex; and the older Lee (Guy Rhys), who is quite clearly grooming Ava, plying her with alcohol at every opportunity, in order to get her to bend to his will. Lee is always seen from Ava’s point of view – a scene where he cuts himself in order to get her to go along with him is particularly disturbing – which means that his manipulation is all the more sinister: he offers the care and attention so lacking elsewhere in her life, and his ulterior motives are opaque and shadowy.

The performances by the five strong cast are uniformly good and Henshaw is particularly adept at conveying her character’s inner conflict through her coiled, unresponsive body language. The edgy duologues are interspersed with more exuberant moments, such as the scene where Ava and Tash throw themselves around the stage, dancing in Northern Soul style. Parallels with birds constantly emerge though the writing – a caged bird occasionally let out to fly around a tiny room, the peregrine falcons nesting in the abandoned tenements nearby. They seem to represent the freedom that Ava yearns for but repeatedly fails to attain.

If there’s a criticism of this play, it’s that the signposting of issues is occasionally rather heavy-handed; it all feels a bit like we’re being hit over the head with them – and it’s clear early in the proceedings that anyone who was hoping for a happy ending is going to be disappointed. Still, it’s a hard-hitting piece that deserves your attention.  Bird is at the Studio Theatre until June 25th.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield