Film

Late Night

12/06/19

Mindy Kaling’s feature debut is a warm, witty and timely tale, a gentle rebuke to those who bemoan positive discrimination, blind to the privilege that underlines their own positions. To Kaling’s credit, the overt message in no way impedes the film’s humour or likability.

Kaling stars as Molly, an Indian-American woman, who’s been working as an admin assistant in a factory – sorry, chemical plant. An essay-writing competition affords her the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to write for her hero, late night TV host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). But, while Katherine is keen to improve  her show’s ratings by shaking up her all-white, all-male writing team, the men themselves are less accommodating, threatened by the presence of an outsider. It doesn’t help that one unfortunate latecomer is literally fired as Molly hovers near his seat.

Thompson is magnificent as the imperious, demanding Katherine. Our view of her is softened by the tenderness of her relationship with her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who is struggling to come to terms with the effects of Parkinson’s disease. This strand offers us an insight into Katherine’s psyche, and helps us to appreciate the sheer talent and drive that has led to her success, and the potential cost of failure. No wonder she is exacting and difficult.

It turns out Molly is exactly what Katherine needs. Not because she is a genius; not because she’s better than all the guys. But because she is as good as them, and she has something different to offer, a less comfortable, tried-and-tested approach. In her innocence, she questions their assumptions and, in time, makes them question themselves.

It’s not all one way though; Molly is not a one-woman saviour – she has lessons to learn too. Veteran writer, Burditt (Max Casella), and conceited ‘head of monologues’, Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), as well as Walter and Katherine themselves, all have sage advice to offer her. The lesson here is simple: we all benefit from inclusivity.

If this makes the film sound dull, then I’m doing it a disservice. It’s properly funny, with Kaling’s genial charm a perfect foil for Thompson’s acerbic wit. Molly’s quiet determination proves a force to be reckoned with, and provides plenty of laughs along the way.

Late Night is a cracking story – a political rom-com for our times.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

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Cabaret

02/06/19

Whenever I’m asked to name my favourite musical, Cabaret is always right up there at the top of the pile. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love lighter stuff like Singing in the Rain and Calamity Jane, but there’s something about this film that transcends the limitations of the genre. While it boasts a whole bunch of solid gold songs, courtesy of Kander and Ebb, the film deals with much weightier issues than your average singalong. Set in Berlin in the early thirties, it documents the decadent nightclub entertainment of the era, set against the rising prominence of Hitler and the Nazi party. I’ve seen it a few times since its UK release in 1972, but only on small screens – this Vintage Sunday screening at The Cameo Cinema gives me the opportunity to properly reasses it. I’m happy to say it hasn’t aged one bit – indeed, given recent political developments, it feels eerily prescient.

Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin where he intends to write fiction, whilst financing himself by giving English lessons. He books in at a once-genteel boarding house and finds himself rooming nextdoor to entertainer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), currently wowing audiences at the seedy Kit Kat Club, presided over by the creepy and salacious MC (Joel Grey). Brian and Sally become close friends and, as time goes on, lovers – but their relationship is developed through turbulent and changing times. The Nazi party members who hand out leaflets at the club are at first derided and openly laughed at by the customers but, gradually, they come to prominence until they are calling the shots – a situation perfectly captured in the scene at a biergarten, where an angelic-faced member of the Hitler youth croons a stirring rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me and the bar’s customers, one by one, begin to sing along with him.

There’s so much to enjoy here it’s hard to know quite where to begin. First of all, there’s Minnelli, positively incandescent, the sheer talent seeming to blaze off her as she sings and dances with absolute authority. Joel Grey too is deliciously dissolute, clearly relishing the role he was born to play. But it’s director/choreographer Bob Fosse who is the real revelation, his mercurial visual style unleashing a whole blitzkrieg of unforgettable scenes. As in all the best musicals, the songs comment on and add to the action and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is forever cutting away to Grey’s leering, winking countenance as he slips us a knowing smile. ‘Look what’s happening here,’ he seems to be saying. ‘And you’re doing nothing to stop it.’

The tragedy, of course, is that none of the major players here ever achieved anything of comparable excellence in their lifetimes. Minnelli’s subsequent screen career is distinctly underwhelming, Grey’s likewise and Bob Fosse directed only another three features before his untimely death in 1987. But Cabaret stands as a dazzling example of the screen musical, a film that never mocks the flamboyant characters it depicts, never goes for the cheap shot and, most important of all, never shies away from asking profoundly unsettling questions.

If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, grab it; if not, see it anyway, in whatever way you can. Few films have such an immense reputation and even fewer actually deserve the acclaim they receive.

Cabaret is, quite simply, a musical masterpiece.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Thunder Road

01/06/19

A few years ago, Jim Cummings was just another wannabe with a crazy dream of making a movie. In 2016, despite having no practical experience, he wrote, directed and starred in a short film, playing the role of a police officer making a disastrously misjudged  attempt to deliver a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. The short won a prestigious award at Sundance and, spurred on by this, Cummings decided to work it up into a full length feature, raising a shooting budget of around $180,000 via Kickstarter and several private investors. When distributors offered him a risible amount of money for world rights to the finished film, he figured he might as well go ahead and distribute it himself…

Now here is that feature, which starts – just as the short did – with Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings) delivering his eulogy, including a toe-curling attempt at interpretive dance to Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. Unlike the original film, this version is further complicated by the fact that he cannot get his daughter’s boom box to work. The camera remains unflinchingly focused on his humiliation throughout, and I sit watching in turmoil, unsure whether I should be cringing or laughing. In the end, I experience a combination of both extremes, as Cummings performs a perilous tightrope walk that feels simultaneously challenging and exhilarating. Happily, what follows doesn’t feel like a hastily conjured add-on, but a compelling story in its own right.

Arnaud is a man on the very edge of a nervous breakdown. He has recently separated from his wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), and is desperately trying to connect with his young daughter, Crystal (a delightful performance from Kendal Farr). Rosalind is making no secret of the fact that she’s planning to go for sole custody in the upcoming divorce, leaving Arnaud to face the prospect of being completely alone, something which terrifies him. Meanwhile, he struggles to carry on with his duties as a cop, pushing his best friend, Officer Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson), to the very limits of his patience.

Thunder Road is a terrific little independent film, a salutory lesson to those who claim that movies simply cannot be made without the investment of a major studio and a multi-million-dollar budget. Cummings depicts a character who is a bubbling cauldron of insecurity and anger, forever boiling over and giving others the wrong impression. Watch the scene where he meets up with Crystal’s teacher, Mr Zahn (Macon Blair), to explain why his daughter is having problems at school. As Arnaud becomes ever more volatile, we fully understand why Zahn chooses to surreptitiously slip a pair of craft scissors into his pocket.

Those who saw the trailer for this can be forgiven for expecting some kind of screwball comedy, but it’s so much more than that. There’s real poignancy here and a lightness of touch that usually only comes after years of experience in the film business. Cummings is evidently a natural, and a name to watch out for in the future. Meanwhile, those who’d like to see the original short (where Officer Arnaud does get that pesky Springsteen song to play) can check it out on Vimeo.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Aladdin

27/05/19

Next in line for the Disney-animations-transformed-into-live-action treadmill is Aladdin. What’s most interesting about this one is the fact that it’s helmed by Guy Ritchie, who – after the underperfroming Man Fom Uncle and the frankly disastrous King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – is clearly in dire need of a hit. (Those who, like me, were secretly hoping for a diamond geezer reinterpretation – ‘Aladdin, you slag, get off my turf!’ – are in for a real disappointment here.) Ritchie plays it safe and manages to emerge with a slice of undemanding, but entertaining hokum, which is probably the object of the exercise.

I won’t bore you with a plot description, but the classic tale has always raised some troubling questions for me, not least this one: why can’t the evil sorceror, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), go into the treasure cave to claim the magic lamp himself, rather than sending young street-thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) to get if for him? But, of course, Aladdin does go in, and unwittingly unleashes the genie, who gives him the opportunity to present himself to Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) as a potential husband – a move from which much hilarity ensues. Will Smith is burdened with the formidable task of attempting to follow Robin Williams’ memorable voiceover performance as The Genie, which, to be fair, he manages with considerable charm.

Jasmine is given a lot more to do than in her previous incarnation, and there’s an obvious female empowerment subplot going on. Even if her most memorable song owes an unspoken debt to Frozen, it nonetheless judges the zeitgeist perfectly, and seems to avoid any obvious cultural blunders.

If ultimately the film rarely dazzles, it’s nonetheless a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. I like this, but I don’t love it – and of course, I’m one of those annoying people who wishes that Disney would stop remaking its old hits and give us something new. You know, just for the novelty of it.

Next up, The Lion King. Ah well…

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Rocketman

25/05/10

Rock star biopics are big business of late. The rather pedestrian (and factually flawed) Bohemian Rhapsody absolutely cleaned up at the box office and even garnered some ill-deserved awards into the bargain. Rocketman has the same director as Bo Rhap – or, at least, Dexter Fletcher steered the former film to fruition after Bryan Singer was obliged to step away from it. But Rocketman almost serves as an object lesson in how entertaining this genre can be when the filmakers have the balls to step away from the obvious and offer up something infinitely more experimental.

This is a fantasia, in its purest form, something that dares to take Elton John’s life story and play around with it. Ironically, in the process, it manages to get closer to the truth of the man behind the myth than Bo Rhap ever managed with Freddie Mercury.

When we first meet Elton, he’s attending a therapy session, dressed as a bright red devil, having just walked away from an important gig – and then, in flashback, we encounter young Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley), strugglng to obtain affection from his distant parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), establishing a distance between them that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Reginald learns he has an aptitude for playing the piano and an ability to effortlessly pick up any tune he hears. Pretty soon, he is older Reg (Kit Connor) and, in the space of one breathless fairground dance routine, he’s grown up to be Taron Egerton. We follow his career: his meeting with kindred spirit, Bernie Taupin (Jaimie Bell), his signing with hard-nosed business manager, Dick James (Stephen Graham), and his love affair with the cruelly manipulative John Reid (Richard Madden).

There’s his career making gig at LA’s Troubador Club and then all the manic excesses of rock hedonism are unleashed – alcoholism, drug and sex addiction, bulimia, that disastrous attempt at marriage… you name it, it’s all encompassed in a series of inventively staged scenes, backed by a seemingly endless collection of solid gold songs. Ironic then, that the film’s most effective moment has Elton belting out a cover version of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, while his piano spins giddily around and he goes through a whole collection of iconic costume transformations.

This film doesn’t attempt to cover EJ’s entire career, ending after his long spell in rehab and his triumphant return with I’m Still Standing, but it’s endlessly entertaining and doesn’t drag for a moment, not even through the inevitable nods to redemption at its conclusion. I am properly engaged from start to finish. Oh, and importantly – I think –  that’s actually Taron Egerton singing all the songs, uncannily nailing EJ’s distinctive phrasing, without it ever feeling like an impersonation.

With so many reasons to go and see it, Rocketman is in serious danger of giving the rock biopic a good name. And Dexter Fletcher is now clearly the go-to man for musicians with a story to tell.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

High Life

13/05/19

The first English language production by French auteur Claire Denis, High Life uses the conventions of a science fiction film to tell its rather bleak story, though there is little in the way of the kind of visual splendour you might expect to find in this genre. Here is a nuts and bolts future where space ships look like packing crates and space suits resemble things you might pick up in Gap. Monte (Robert Pattison) is a former Death Row inmate who, when we first meet him, is alone on a space ship with a baby. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, how the two of them came to be there.

Monte, it turns out, was part of a team of prisoners, sent on a journey to a black hole deep in space in order to harness its energy. This crew of misfits is presided over by Doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who – presumably spurred on by the knowledge that the mission is going to take longer than the average human life span – has become obsessed with the idea of starting new life aboard the ship. But instead of letting the crew just pursue things in the usual way of procreation, she keeps everyone heavily sedated. The male crew members have to submit a daily sperm sample to her, which she, in turn,  administers to the females.

Hardly surprising then, that deep resentment begins to simmer, and it’s only a matter of time before things kick off.

Denis has quite a reputation and it might be this, more than anything else, that has initiated the slew of glowing reviews this film has already garnered – but for the life of me, I can’t share this enthusiasm for it. It soon becomes apparent that, while the film’s setting might be futuristic, its sexual politics remain deeply entrenched in the stone age. And this prompts some worrying questions.

Why does Binoche’s character wander around the spaceship in a nurses’s outfit that is clearly several sizes too small for her? And why, in the extended sequence when she pleasures herself in the ship’s ‘fuckbox,’ does it look as though it has been choreographed to please some unseen male gaze, even though it’s been co-authored by Denis herself? There’s also a particularly nasty rape scene, later in the film, which culminates in the bloody death of the perpetrator, but which adds precisely nothing of value to the story. Presented as it is, it just feels salacious.

These are not the only problems I have with High Life. I learn very little about Monte and even less about his crew mates, which makes it hard for me to care about them when they end up as so much flotsam. I think that Monte has some feelings for Boyse (Mia Goth) but can’t be entirely sure – and what exactly is the story behind Monte’s childhood crime, only partially revealed in flashback? Finally… that harnessing of the black hole’s power… how was that supposed to work exactly? It seems a bit cavalier to use the conventions of a genre without properly thinking it through.

If High Life was the product of a debut director, it would be panned and quickly forgotten. But I fear it’s become one of those ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ movies, with few people prepared to step up to the plate and denounce it as the wrong-headed, misogynistic muddle that it surely is.

Unless I’m missing something? Answers on a  postcard, please…

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Long Shot

12/05/19

Long Shot takes place in an alternative version of America, where Charlize Theron could conceivably be Secretary of State and where she just might be having a covert affair with Seth Rogan’s amiable slacker of a journalist. Think, if you will, of a US version of a Richard Curtis film. It might have a perfectly preposterous story line but, if you turn a blind eye to that, it’s nonetheless pretty entertaining.

Theron is S of S Charlotte Field, looking towards turning her current situation into a bid to become America’s first female POTUS, having received an endorsement from  incumbent President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), who has decided he wants to get out of politics and become a film star. At an upmarket party, Charlotte reconnects with Gonzo journalist, Fred Flarsky (Rogan), for whom she used to babysit back in the day, and with whom she clearly has unfinished business. Flarsky is newly unemployed after the paper he works for has been bought out by the odious capitalist, Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), and it just so happens that Charlotte is looking for a speechwriter to help her launch her bid for the presidency.

With Flarsky on board, Charlotte sets off on a world tour in an attempt to sell herself as the next president of America but, inevitably, romantic sparks soon begin to fly between the odd couple. Problem is, Flarsky’s image may not be a suitable fit for somebody looking to be taking seriously as a politician…

As I said, Long Shot might not have the most convincing plot you’ve ever encountered, but it’s smart, clever, and – for most of its duration – very funny. Theron and Rogan manage to generate some convincing chemistry together, and somewhere in here there’s the age-old message about being true to yourself and never compromising on your beliefs.

So – fun while it’s happening, but probably not destined to linger in the memory for very long. And as for that title, I have no idea what it refers to.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney