Month: March 2017

Get Out

19/03/17

Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is what he calls a ‘social thriller’ – and it’s a very successful slice of film.

When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya)’s girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) invites him to spend the weekend visiting her parents, he’s happy to go along, but cautions, “Have you told them that I’m black?” Rose laughs, insisting that her parents are open-minded and not racists: “Dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could.” Ouch. And at first, this is what the film appears to be: a social satire, highlighting the awkward ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking that characterises white liberal ‘tolerance.’ Chris has to grit his teeth and respond politely every time his apparently well-meaning  hosts shoe-horn references to black sports stars and actors into their conversations with him, every time they make assumptions about his interests or his physicality.

And yet, it’s more than that. Who are the mysterious black servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel)? And why are they so creepy? There are shades of The Stepford Wives at play here, though Peele’s story takes the idea in an entirely new direction. When Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) hypnotises Chris, ostensibly to help him quit smoking, events take a decidedly sinister turn, and Chris begins to realise that this white, middle-class, lefty suburb is a very dangerous place for a person of colour.

Despite its serious message, Get Out has a real lightness of touch, which makes its revelation of uncomfortable truths both palatable and crystal clear. There’s humour too – real laugh out loud stuff – provided primarily by LilRel Howery as Chris’s best friend, Rod.  It’s a gift of a role and the actor clearly revels in it.

Okay, so if I’m honest I’d have liked a few more jump-scares. But all in all, this is a cracking film with a brutal originality at its heart.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

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Personal Shopper

17/03/17

This dark and somewhat gloomy offering from director Olivier Assayas, chronicles the misfortunes of Maureen (Kristen Stewart) a young woman based in Paris who is the personal shopper for  super-successful (and barely glimpsed) fashionista, Kyra (Nora Van Waldstatten). Maureen’s life is an unrewarding succession of shopping expeditions for fancy clothing and footwear that she’s forbidden from trying on herself, even though she’s been chosen for this role because she’s exactly the same size as Kyra.

Maureen is also a medium, desperately trying to get in touch with her twin brother, Lewis, who died a year ago and who suffered from the same congenital heart condition as her. The opening sequence, slow and wordless, has Maureen wandering around a deserted mansion in the dark, listening to various bumps and whispers, a scene which leads us to believe that we are in for a traditional ghost story; but, half way in, the film switches abruptly into murder mystery territory and from there just seems to be become increasingly bewildering.

This is a shame because Stewart’s performance, as a downtrodden, scruffy girl next door, is rather good, a million miles away from her familiar Twilight persona. She skilfully portrays a character who is repressing her inner demons and who suffers from a crippling inability to assert herself. Sadly the story she’s starring in is rather less assured. Assayas seems to be riffing on the parallels between contemporary communication – texts, Skype calls, emails – and the world of the supernatural, but he doesn’t try very hard to inform the average viewer, leaving us to guess at his intentions. Long passages have characters speaking in French – and other languages – without the aid of subtitles. Worse still, the all important conclusion to the murder mystery element happens off screen, neatly destroying any suspense that might have been generated through the series of threatening text messages that Maureen receives throughout the story. Finally, the films denouement is so obfuscated,  I spent hours afterwards trying to work out exactly what had happened.

Some reviewers have praised the film’s refusal to ‘pin things down,’ but the elephant in the room here is that this is surely an example of poor storytelling. I’m all for allowing viewers to make their own minds up as to what the director was trying to ‘say,’ but it surely helps to give us something concrete to build our theories on. In the end, Personal Shopper is neither fish nor fowl – it’s not the affecting ghost story it might have been and neither is it a satisfying thriller. Instead, it exists in a nebulous world somewhere between the two.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

9 to 5: The Musical

original

15/03/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

9 to 5 is one of Dolly Parton’s best-loved songs, and this musical, is very much the singer’s brainchild too, featuring her music and lyrics with book by Patricia Resnick. Dolly even makes an appearance, projected onto a screen, introducing the show. It’s a lively, sprawling tale of office life, a feminist-lite story of three women who collaborate to overthrow their sexist boss, Hart (Colin Cairncross) and make their workplace more amenable.

Okay, so the storyline is somewhat shonky but the Bohemians Lyric Opera Company are one of Edinburgh’s best known amateur groups, established in 1909, and their production is as gutsy and energetic as you might expect. It’s beautifully styled – all 70s kitsch – and the choral singing is excellent.

But the stand-outs are the three leads, each perfectly cast. Katherine Croan is a sassy Doralee, the Dolly-Parton-esque glamour puss who despairs of her colleagues who refuse  to see there’s more to her than hair and boobs. She struts and pouts and really owns the stage. It’s a wonderful performance. Jo Heinemeier is also impressive as Judy, the timid new girl in the office, learning independence  after her husband has left her. Her voice is truly exquisite. Pauline Dickson’s Violet is another delight, conveying strength as well as vulnerability; it’s a maternal role and very well realised. The relationship between the three characters is warm and convincing, and really makes the piece.

There are a few quibbles: the choreography  is perhaps a little over-ambitious at times, and there are too many complicated  set changes, but overall  this is a decent production – and very well worth going to see.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Hay Fever

HayFever

14/03/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The world of Noel Coward is arguably an overly familiar one – a world of tennis whites and champagne cocktails, of country houses and French windows. Perhaps the word most associated with his work is ‘arch.’ If you’re going to have a crack at the plays of ‘The Master’, you’d better be sure that quality is there in abundance.

Luckily, this co-production from The Lyceum Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, under the astute direction of Dominic Hill, gets it just right. Hay Fever is the story of the Bliss family, four eccentric bohemians co-existing in their country retreat and planning a bit of a bash at the weekend. The father of the house, David (Benny Baxter-Young), is a successful novelist, currently hard at work on his latest opus, The Sinful Woman. His wife, Judith (Susan Woolridge), is a former grande dame who has never quite lost her flair for the theatrical and is happy to utilise it whatever she’s doing (even she’s simply rearranging flowers). And then there are the kids, Sorel (Rosemary Boyle) and Simon (Charlie Archer), both bored to distraction, endlessly bickering and always ready to make a little mischief. When it transpires that each member of the Bliss family has invited a different house guest down for the weekend, it’s clear that the stage is set for some farcical encounters… but who, you might ask, will get to sleep in the Japanese room? And why does it seem to matter so much?

I’ve rarely seen Coward done better than this. The social awkwardness of the various visitors is played for maximum effect. The scene where hopelessly-out-of–her-depth Jackie Coryton (Katie Barnett) is obliged to interact with pompous Richard Greatham (Hywel Simons) is almost painfully funny. On the night we attend, an onstage accident, which results in a hostess trolley tipping over complete with everyone’s breakfast, is skilfully incorporated into the proceedings and gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening. I also enjoy the brief interval where housekeeper Clara (Myra McFadyen) treats us to a brief selection of Coward’s greatest hits.

This is a delightfully frothy confection and, even though it’s set in the 1920s, the awkward toe-curling moments it offers for our entertainment are still just as relevant today. Go along and treat yourself. These days laughter like this is in perilously short supply.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Love Witch

13/03/17

There are good films, there are bad films and then there are kitsch films, and I think The Love Witch definitely falls in to the third category. Pretty much the love project of one woman, Anna Biller – she wrote, directed, edited and even created the costumes and props for this – the result is quite unlike anything I’ve seen in the cinema since the 1970s, every frame lovingly styled in eye-popping Technicolour, every face ladled with makeup, every hairstyle meticulously arranged.

Elaine (a remarkable performance by Samantha Robinson, looking for all the world like a young Diana Rigg) is the new witch on the block, just arrived in a small American town where she is received with little more than the occasional raised (and perfectly plucked) eyebrow. Indeed, there’s even a quaint little store in town selling potions and charms where Elaine can earn herself some pin money. We quickly learn that she is desperately in search of love and is ready to use every potion in her arsenal to secure the right partner. Her ex-husband, Jerry, has come to a somewhat sticky end and it’s clear from the outset that his premature demise is linked to the fact that he has disappointed Elaine. As she starts to attach herself to various males about town, a deadly pattern emerges… and woe betide any man who fails to live up to her romantic expectations.

I rather enjoyed this film. The characters here do not behave in the way that rational people would – indeed, the storyline is a nutty as a squirrel’s horde – but the film’s powerful appeal lies in its outright clunkiness, the way that it steadfastly refuses to allow for anything approaching normality. And though you’d be forgiven for thinking that the story is actually set in the 1970s, characters will occasionally pull out a mobile phone, or something equally 21st Century and, although at first it just looks somehow wrong, this jarring quality is what makes the film so much fun. What might at first appear to be an anti-feminist bias in the story, cunningly ends up pointing out that Elaine’s old fashioned obsession with love and romance – itself a spoof of the romantic ideals espoused by women’s magazines – is a destructive thing that can only lead to madness and mayhem. The male characters are equally ill-served by these ideologies, as they speed short-sightedly towards their own destruction.

If I’ve made it all sound rather po-faced, don’t be misled. The film is often laugh-out-loud funny (the fight sequences alone are worth the price of admission). To be honest, The Love Witch does slightly overstay its welcome: an extended sequence set at a medieval fair has several ‘hey nonny noes’ too many,  for example, and a quick trim in the editing booth would have worked wonders  – but that’s a minor quibble. In the end, this works so well because it’s like something from another time. But it’s much more than just a 70s spoof. It’s a genuine oddity – and an accomplished work of art.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Elle

13/03/17

Elle is an accomplished piece of film-making, with undeniably strong performances from its talented cast, with Huppert – unsurprisingly – proving utterly compelling as Michèle, a successful business woman navigating her response to a violent rape.

There’s much to commend this movie: it’s always engaging and never clichéd. It looks glorious: all cold winter colours and long windows; it’s languorous and sexy and full of surprises. But I’m struggling. I can’t overcome my discomfort with the idea of a narrative where a woman wants to be raped. Is that what happens here? Is that how she wrests control from her attacker – by asserting her desire for that which he would rather seize from an unwilling victim? It seems a sorry sort of power. I’ve read articles referring to this as a post-feminist narrative, celebrating Michèle’s strength and sexual confidence. And there’s some merit to this argument: she refuses to become a victim, does not conform to expectations that she should be somehow broken by the act. She remains a sexual being, with urges she follows, even when there’s a moral compromise. This is no two-dimensional character.

And yet. And yet. Her attacker still breaks into her home wearing a mask, hits her, abuses her. He violates her. She has no say. Choosing a repeat performance cannot be construed as somehow winning, can it? Especially as retribution, when it happens, is exacted for her by a man.

So, I don’t know. I don’t think rape stories should be banned, and I don’t think they should all be morality tales with deserving victims and evil perpetrators. I like that Michèle is a difficult, unlikeable person, with a strange past and questionable values. But I do wonder, really, what this particular film – with its male director (Paul Verhoeven) and its three male writers (David Birke, Philippe Djian and Harold Manning) – is really saying about violent assault against women. It’s a conundrum, that’s for sure.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Kong: Skull Island

11/03/17

I’ve long had a soft spot for King Kong. I saw the original movie – on TV – when I was very young and instantly fell for Willis O Brian’s famous stop-motion creation; and I’m one of those people who adored Peter Jackson’s affectionate and brilliantly crafted reboot of the story. So the news that Kong: Skull Island was on the cinematic horizon, as a taster to his grudge match with Godzilla, some time next year,  was greeted with a certain amount of cautious anticipation.

This standalone creature feature is a bit of an oddity, a curious mash-up of classic Kong and, of all things, Apocalypse Now. Set in 1973, just after America’s hasty departure from the Vietnam War, we learn of a proposed expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman). Randa claims he’s looking for rare minerals but it’s clear from the outset that he has a hidden agenda. He enlists the help of Vietnam veteran Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter platoon to ferry the necessary equipment through the perpetual electrical storm that cloaks the island and, he also ropes in survival expert, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston as the poshest mercenary in history) plus photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to record everything that happens on the trip. The helicopters go in, not to the strains of Wagner, but to the 70s rock soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival and they drop a series of explosive charges on the island in order to scare up anything that might be hiding in the undergrowth. Whereupon, the titular 100 ft tall ape appears out of the smoke and gives the platoon a right royal kicking.

Kong, as imagined by Industrial Light & magic, is a truly magnificent specimen; and as the survivors of the initial assault soon discover, he’s only one of the gigantic creatures that inhabit Skull Island. Worst of all are the Skull Crawlers, hideous two legged lizards that occasionally emerge from underground intent on eating anything they can find. (They ate Kong’s parents so naturally, he bears the a lot of ill will).

OK, so this isn’t exactly a perfect film. The large human cast are inevitably dwarfed by the gigantic creatures pursuing them and any attempts at characterisation can only be sketched in with the broadest of brush strokes. (It’s interesting to note that Jackson’s film spent the best part of an hour with the human characters before they even reached Skull Island, but then he had three hours to play with). And really there are a lot of humans to consider here , though best of the bunch is undoubtedly John C Riley as Hank Marlow, a World War 2 pilot who has been marooned on the island for twenty eight years and who has gone slightly loopy waiting for rescue. (Marlow bears more than a passing resemblance to Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, and this cannot be a coincidence – nor the fact that Hiddleston’s character is called Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness on which Apocalypse Now is based).

At any rate, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a decent job of stitching it all together. There’s enough references to the original to keep fan boys like me happy and enough major characters being offed to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also loved the audacious twist on the ‘soldier sacrificing himself in a blaze of glory’ trope towards the film’s conclusion, which seemed to spell out how futile such gestures are.

This won’t please everyone, but I have to say I was entertained enough and occasionally thrilled by a concept which dared to throw so many new ideas at a classic storyline, that some of them had to stick. Skull Island is a fun place to visit and Kong is still my favourite movie monster.

4 stars

Philip Caveney