Month: March 2020

Midnight Run

28/03/20

Since new cinema releases are hard to come by, we’ve decided to take a fresh look at some old favourites and reappraise them through a contemporary lens. Are they still as good as we thought they were? First out of the (DVD) box is Midnight Run (1988), directed by Martin Brest.

I first saw this film on its cinematic release (so in Manchester, I guess) and I went to it with no real expectations. Brest was, at that time, best known for his work on Beverly Hills Cop, a big-hitting feature for Eddie Murphy, and I pretty much thought it would be just another genre piece. But it’s much more than that, largely because of the wonderful chemistry between Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, which turns this comedy crime caper into what used be known as a ‘buddy movie.’

De Niro plays Jack Walsh, former cop turned bounty hunter, working for bails bondsman, Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano.) Moscone has recently put up the bail for accountant, Jonathan Mardukis (Grodin), who has stolen two million dollars from mafia big wig Jimmy Serrano (Denis Farina), money which he has promptly donated to charity. Serrano is eager to have his revenge and, meanwhile, the FBI, led by Agent Alonzo Mosely (Yapphet Kotto), are also very interested in talking to Mardukis. Can Walsh find his quarry and bring him in for trial before violent retribution catches up with him?

Of course, Midnight Run has all the genre tropes you’d expect from a film like this – hair raising shoot-outs, extended car chases and bruising punch ups  – but it’s in the developing relationship between Walsh and Mardukis that the film really shines. This, of course, features De Niro when he was still at the top of his game, able to convey so much with just a look and a shrug. Watch the heart-wrenching scene where Walsh is suddenly confronted by the teenage daughter he hasn’t seen in nine years and you are witnessing a masterclass in understatement. Grodin, meanwhile, plays his polar opposite, a calm and relaxed character, somehow nurturing despite his invidious position as the man who everybody wants to kill.

The witty screenplay by George Gallo fairly bristles with memorable one liners (I’m delighted to find that I can still remember most of them after all these years) and there’s also a hilarious turn from John Aston as dim-witted rival bounty hunter, Marvin Dorfler. The extended running ‘punch’ gag between him and Walsh is perfectly played throughout.

What seems particularly weird when viewing this from a contemporary perspective is all that gratuitous smoking – characters enjoy cigarettes on planes, trains, in offices, on the subway… just about everywhere you can think of. And of course, there are no mobile phones, so there are countless scenes of people talking from phone booths or running into bars just in time to pick up a receiver.

But these idiosyncrasies aside, Midnight Run stands time’s acid test. It’s still hugely enjoyable. Martin Brest had a few more successes waiting for him down the line, not least guiding Al Pacino to his Oscar win for Scent of a Woman in 1992, but this remains his most satisfying piece of work, the perfect choice for a locked-down life.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Emerald City

26/03/20

Digital Theatre 

We’ve managed to find ways to get our cinematic fix from home, but what about theatre? In the normal run of things, we’d be out two or three times a week watching shows, but these are extraordinary times. Thank goodness then for Digital Theatre, which, for a modest £9.99 per month, gives us access to a whole range of top-level productions. A quick glance through their offerings reveals that there’s plenty of Shakespeare on there, musical theatre and a lot more – but tonight we’re in the mood for something completely new to us, so we opt for the Australian National Theatre’s production of Emerald City by David Williamson.

Set in the 1980s, it’s the story of Colin (Mitchell Butell), a critically acclaimed screenwriter, recently moved from arty Melbourne to money-obsessed Sydney, where all the big Australian film deals happen (think Australia’s Hollywood). Colin and his wife, Kate (Lucy Bell), who works in publishing, move into a modest apartment with their children (whom we never see nor have any real sense of) and Colin sets about writing a long cherished project, based on his Uncle’s wartime experiences. His hard-bitten agent, Elaine (Jennifer Hagen), isn’t keen on the premise, which she feels just isn’t commercial enough.

At a party, Collin encounters Mike (Ben Winspear), a wannabe screenwriter with more ambition than his slender talents can support – but he does have a bullish approach that seems to get results. The two men team up on Colin’s project, though Mike is clearly more keen to work on his own idea, a kind of Australian Miami Vice. Colin soon finds himself unhealthily fixated on Mike’s girlfriend, Helen (Kelly Paterniti), and she is clearly interested in him. As the two men’s lives become increasingly entangled, Colin’s professional integrity – and Kate’s – come up against some unexpected challenges.

At first, I’m not at all sure about this production. The garish and unconventional stage set is rather unsettling, with the actors moving out into the audience, along a kind of V-shaped thrust design. Characters keep breaking off from conversations with each other to confide their innermost thoughts to the audience which again, takes a little time to get used to. But, once into the rhythms of Williamson’s approach, the piece embeds itself and starts to pay dividends.

This is a dry and witty play that constantly points up how difficult it is to have integrity in a world that is so fixated on financial results. The eternal conflict between art and commerce provides the real meat of this story. Winspear offers a bruising depiction of toxic masculinity and Hagen somehow manages to be the personification of every literary agent I’ve ever met. Some of the developments are wildly funny – I love the idea of a publisher flying first class to the Booker Prize ceremony when the author of the nominated book has decided not to go because she disagrees with the very idea of it!

I have thus far had no knowledge of Australian theatre but Emerald City proves to be a rewarding first dip into its unknown waters.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

25/03/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The current global pandemic has had devastating consequences for so many people that it seems somehow petty to complain that, as ardent movie fans, we’re trying to deal with the much less disastrous irritation of having no new movies to review. But nevertheless, the problem exists.

Of course, films are readily available on streaming services such as Netflix , but there’s not much there that we haven’t already viewed elsewhere – so, when we hear about Curzon Home Cinema, where there’s no monthly contract and where recently released films can by rented for a set fee, we are naturally keen to try it out. Prices range from £4.99 to £9.99 and there are discounts for those who choose to become members. Portrait of a Lady On Fire is our first foray into the service.

This handsome French production has all the familiar tropes of a classic Gothic horror: an empty house in a remote location; dark candlelit corners; there’s even what appears to be a ‘ghostly’ presence haunting its corridors. But writer/director Céline Sçiamma clearly has other intentions and what gradually emerges here is a tragic love story enacted in a period when such love was strictly forbidden.

Portrait painter Marian (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an unnamed island. She’s been commissioned by Lan Contesse (Valerio Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel), who – after the death of her older sister – is about to be betrothed to a man she has never met. But Hélöise – understandably – really isn’t in the mood to have her portrait painted, so Marian is going to have to spend as much time as she can with her and produce the portrait in secret. Locked up together in the house, with just young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) for company, Marian and Hélöise grow closer by the day…

This is a gorgeous film, featuring beautifully nuanced performances from the two leads and gifted with some sumptuous cinematography. It’s a strikingly feminist story, clearly demonstrating the unfairness of womanhood in the 18th century. But it’s strongest suit is in the depiction of an artist at work, as Marian gradually builds her images from rough lines in charcoal to the finished product. There’s also a stunning set piece where we fully understand the full meaning of that unwieldy title and also a bitter-sweet coda that drives the film’s powerful message straight to the heart.

Curzon Home Cinema is surely the place to procure your cinematic fix.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Cat Returns

16/03/20

Netflix

When the world goes mad, when cinemas across the UK close their doors, and when all major film releases are pushed back for months, what does a movie reviewer do for entertainment? Well, the recent rash of Studio Ghibli films, streamed on Netflix, seems a promising source to explore.

We’ve seen many of the big hitters, of course, but here’s something we missed on its first release in 2002. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita (who directed Akira and The Ghost in the Shell), The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki), a shy seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, whose life is completely upended when she saves a cat from being run over by a truck. It turns out that he’s no ordinary moggie, but Prince Lune (Takayuki Yamada), the heir to the magical Cat Kingdom. What’s more, he’s determined to reward Haru for her good deed, even though showering her with mice isn’t as well-received as he expects.

This features the usual enchanting hand-drawn animation and a storyline that owes more than a passing debt to Alice in Wonderland – indeed, there are whole sequences here that pay homage to Lewis Carroll’s most famous book and the similarities are too marked to be accidental. While Alice finds her way to Wonderland by following a white rabbit, Haru follows podgy white cat, Muta (Tetsu Watanabe), and ends up in an equally bewildering destination.

Much like that story, the plot here meanders into some very eccentric backwaters and doesn’t make very much sense, but that’s not really a problem. I love the character of Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada), a super-cool cat who sports a sharp suit and bowler hat and has more than a dash of 007 about him – and Tetsurô Tanba’s Cat King is also entertaining, a clumsy buffoon, intent on marrying his son off to Haru (I know, weird, right?).

While The Cat Returns may not be top flight Ghibli, it’s nonetheless quirky and inventive enough to make an hour and fifteen minutes pass in the blink of a cat’s eye. And right now, that’s a bonus.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Misbehaviour

15/03/20

Misbehaviour chronicles the true-life weirdness of the 1970 Miss World pageant, notable both for being disrupted by the Women’s Liberation Front and for celebrating its first ever black winner. This tension between different types of progressiveness keeps the film interesting as it explores the nuances inherent in trying to effect change.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten, ‘Miss Grenada,’ who made history by placing first in the contest. For her, Miss World is all about representation and opportunity: there are little black girls, she tells white activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who will see her on TV and know that they can be successful too. And she’s hoping that the exposure will give her a chance to achieve her dream of becoming a broadcaster. She’s composed and dignified, utilising the competition for her own ends. It’s difficult to argue with her point of view.

But that’s where this film succeeds: it doesn’t try to argue with her. It allows for the fact that competing narratives can be simultaneously true. Because Alexander and the rest of the Women’s Libbers aren’t wrong either: it is appalling to see women weighed, measured, paraded and graded. It is appalling that this is what women have to do in order to succeed.

But even within the activists, there is space for difference. Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley)’s direct action mantra is a world away from Alexander’s ‘get a seat at the table and fight from within’ approach. As writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe make clear, there is no one path to righteousness. But one thing is certain, the Miss World pageant is an outmoded model, and casually misogynistic men like organiser Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, on fine form) are going to have to face the fact that their time is up.

Misbehaviour is a gentle film, despite its themes of outrage and activism. There’s no post #MeToo hint of inappropriate sexual attentions being foisted on the contestants; instead, director Philippa Lowthorpe concentrates on the insidiously benign sexism that pervaded the era, and on the bravery of the women who called it out, on whose shoulders today’s young feminists stand.

Thank you.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Songs of Friendship 3: Revelations

13/03/20

It’s likely that James Rowland’s trilogy will be the last stage performance we see for a while, thanks to a certain wee virus up-ending life as we know it. As mass gatherings are banned and large theatres begin to shut, we’re here, slathered in hand-sanitiser, hoping that the small, clean Traverse 2 is a safe enough space.

This is part three of the trilogy, but – at the time of watching – we hadn’t yet seen part two. That has now been rectified, which is good because it means I’m writing with full knowledge of the story – but bad because it’s playing havoc with our house-style of writing in the present tense…

Anyway.

Revelations is about an older, sadder James. The shock of losing a best friend to cancer; the awkward sadness of an inevitable break-up – these heartaches belonged to a young man, not quite fully-fledged, whatever his birth certificate might have said. This final instalment is altogether more grown up, although, of course, James is still James, so ‘maturity’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Still, he’s forced to confront some pretty adult issues, and there’s an endearing frankness to the way he details his response.

The main focus is parenthood, specifically the idea of being a sperm donor for his best friend and her wife. He wouldn’t be the baby’s father (it would have two mothers), but he would be an active presence in its life. And, he worries, maybe too active a presence: is he getting in the way of Sarah and Emma’s relationship?

This final instalment is, without doubt, a tragedy, albeit told with humour – and without clothes. Yes, that’s right – without clothes. Because Rowland spends the last twenty minutes stark-bollock naked. It’s a shame that we need trigger warnings (and I do understand why; I’m not arguing against them in principle) because the shock-factor is somewhat undermined by a ‘THIS SHOW CONTAINS FULL-FRONTAL NUDITY’ poster that greets us as we enter. Instead of being startling, the undressing is more: ‘Oh, okay then; here it is…’

It’s definitely brave, although I’m not sure why he doesn’t pop on a dressing gown after the key moment of revelation. Except that there’s a sense throughout the trilogy of a character who always pushes things too far, and maybe this is just the final iteration of that trait.

All in all, Songs of Friendship establishes Rowland as an accomplished and empathetic storyteller, whose friendly bumblings through life will retain a place in many hearts.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Songs of Friendship 2: A Hundred Different Words For Love

14/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Actor/writer James Rowland presents the second part of his Songs of Friendship trilogy, although we’re seeing it out of sequence, having already seen parts 1 and 3.  Though it employs pretty much the the same techniques, it feels decidedly gentler and much more light-hearted than either its angst-ridden predecessor or successor.

The music also reflects this softer feel. Once again, Rowland uses a looping device to build up layers of melody, but the mellow-sounding keyboard he uses creates a lusher sound than we heard in either of the other parts.

In this episode, James’s best friend, Sarah, is getting married to her partner, Emma, while James himself is going through the throes of a passionate, but ultimately doomed romance with an un-named woman. As before, Rowland plays all the roles, flitting from one character to the next with ease. He effortlessly draws his audience into the story and there’s some nice interplay between him and us. The story is very funny in a Richard Curtis sort of way – something that Rowland happily refers to during the telling – and he scampers around the stage, dispensing observations and even, at one point, sporting a very fetching red dress.

For my money, this is the most successful chapter of the trilogy. It doesn’t try to shock or challenge too much, but just envelops me in a warm glow and sends me on my way with a smile on my face.

Philip Caveney