Bombshell

07/01/20

It was perhaps inevitable that #MeToo would eventually inspire a movie and it’s rather ironic that the first one out of the gate has been written and directed by men – moreover, the director is Hal Roach, previously best known for the Austin Powers films, a franchise that never troubled itself overmuch with the subject of women’s rights. Nonetheless, Bombshell is a powerful and prescient story that takes a close look at the Fox News scandal and the people who lived through it.

Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, Fox’s most influential news anchor, who, at the film’s opening, is exchanging excoriating words with one Donald Trump, an event that will put her on the Republican party’s shit list for an entire year. Kelly has long ago learned to co-exist with Fox News’s all-powerful boss, Roger Aisles (the usually avuncular John Lithgow, cast against type here as a loathsome philanderer). Aisles constantly keeps an eye peeled for new opportunities and soon finds it with the arrival of ambitious young TV producer, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Kayla has a yen to step in front of the cameras herself. The question is, how much will Aisles demand to help her achieve that ambition?

Meanwhile, another veteran presenter, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), finds her power at the network fading. She’s already been shunted to a less prestigious afternoon slot because of her refusal to kowtow to Mr Aisles’ increasingly sexist demands – and, when she is summarily sacked for no good reason other than she is getting older, she decides to sue Aisles for wrongful dismissal. She hopes that other women who have suffered at his hands will join her cause but, as she soon discovers, many employees at Fox (including Kelly) have too much to lose to risk incurring the wrath of the network…

Charles Randolph’s screenplay does a pretty thorough job of depicting the toxic atmosphere at Fox News during this period. Both Theron and Kidman, sporting convincing prosthetics to make them look more like the genuine players, offer their customary assured performances, but are perhaps hampered by the fact that, when playing real life personalities, finding their inner life can be problematic. It’s therefore Robbie who is the real revelation here. Since her character is a fiction, an amalgam of Aisles’ many victims over the years, she has more freedom to explore the role – and runs with it. The scene where Aisles compels her to ‘give him a twirl’ is an object lesson in understatement, the character’s hidden turmoil brilliantly expressed in every movement and gesture – while later on her tearful phone conversation with a female friend is emotive stuff. Lithgow too is excellent, horribly convincing as the oleaginous Aisles, a man who can make the very act of breathing look unpleasant.

I like the unflinching realism here. There’s no female bonding on display, no sense of the women working together for a common purpose – indeed, the major protagonists of this story barely exchange half a dozen words with each other. It’s a sobering demonstration of how personal ambitions can get in the way of a greater good. But that makes it all the more believable, more like something that could actually happen in such a cutthroat, competitive world.

Watch out for a cameo from Malcolm McDowell as a (pretty convincing) Rupert Murdoch and don’t miss the closing captions, which point out how the guilty parties in this debacle came away with (surprise, surprise) a lot more money than its supposed victors.

Bombshell may be the first film to properly explore the subject of  #MeToo, but I’m quite sure it won’t be the last. And, for a opening salvo, this hits most of its targets.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Souvenir

06/01/20

Writer-director Joanna Hogg’s latest feature is as much a study of film-making as it is an intimate portrayal of a flawed relationship. Its the early 1980s and wannabe film-maker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is trying to find her voice. She’s in her mid-twenties, and keen to explore a story that will take her out of her ‘bubble.’ And it is quite a rarefied bubble, with a Knightsbridge flat and a place at film school all funded by her parents, a set of privileges that both advantage her (giving her the space and opportunity to pursue her dreams) and infantilise her (‘Can I borrow some more money, Mummy? No, I promise, I’m not being extravagant…’). Julie is keenly aware that hers is a narrow worldview, but soon realises that appropriating someone else’s experiences isn’t going to work. And, when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), it soon becomes apparent that even she is not impervious to drama and to strife.

Julie lacks confidence, and Anthony has lots of it. He’s ebullient, arrogant, charming and dismissive. He’s a bit older than her, works for the foreign office (or so he says), and has a taste for the finer things in life. Julie is swept off her feet but, at a dinner party, Anthony’s friend, Patrick (Richard Ayoade), reveals a disturbing secret. As time goes on, Anthony’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and manipulative, and Julie’s fragile sense of self takes a real battering.

It’s beautifully acted by all involved, although – given the film’s preoccupation with privilege – it’s a little concerning to see the emergence of another acting dynasty, with Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother (Tilda Swinton) playing her fictional counterpart with consummate skill. Swinton Byrne has certainly inherited the family talent and is mesmerising on screen, but I’m still not sure I like a world where directors’ godchildren are cast as leads in their films. It speaks too loudly of closed doors.

Still, that aside, this is a clever, thought-provoking film. It moves slowly and leaves gaps, as much revealed by what is not said as by what is. Julie is often rendered mute by Anthony’s outbursts; her parents are models of politeness and restraint. But the relationships are vivid nevertheless, and Julie’s core determination to create something of her own shines through, despite her ongoing ordeal.

Burke is especially interesting as Anthony, ensuring we empathise with him even as we despise his actions. As he gradually exerts more and more control over Julie’s life, we begin to will her to break free from his clutches, but she seems incapable of shrugging off his malignant influence. Meanwhile, the era and lifestyle against which this toxic relationship plays out are evocatively portrayed, the cinematography’s washed out tones a subtle reminder of the historical setting.

This exquisite slow burner of a film is, most definitely, one to watch.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Gentlemen

01/01/20

When Guy Ritchie first burst onto cinema screens in 1998 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his felt like a genuinely fresh voice and, two years later, Snatch served to consolidate his reputation. But his output over the intervening years has not been as assured. (Anybody who had the misfortune to witness his attempt to reinvent King Arthur as a diamond geezer will know where I’m coming from here.) While his recent box office crowd pleaser Aladdin doubtlessly put him back into the black, it could have been directed by just about anybody. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that The Gentlemen is an all too-obvious attempt by Ritchie to return to his glory days. It’s all here, complete with an 18 certificate and enough C bombs for ten films. Take that, Walt Disney!

The lead ‘gentleman’ of the story is Rhodes scholar turned pot dealer, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who is the top drug baron of the realm. He mingles with the aristocracy, who cheerfully help him to grow his crop, and is rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. But he’s looking to get out and spend quality time with his wife, Roz (Michelle Dockery), so he offers to sell his business to Mathew (Jeremy Strong) for a cool 200 million dollars. As you do. But of course, other ‘gentlemen’ are sniffing around, including Dry Eye (Henry Golding) and, naturally, there are various attempts by various others to muscle in on the deal. On reflection, maybe the film should have been entitled The Scumbags, because there’s nobody here to root for, each successive character as nasty and depraved as the previous one. McConaughey, by the way,  has very little to do here except wander listlessly around in a tuxedo.

The story is related by seedy private eye, Fletcher (Hugh Grant, entertainingly playing against type) to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey’s right hand man. Fletcher, it seems, has blackmail on his mind, and has written a ‘screenplay’ about the whole thing. He pitches it to Raymond (and the audience) as if trying to get us on side. A convoluted shaggy dog story ensues…

Sadly, Ritchie’s attempt to get back to his former strengths misfires horribly. Despite a pleasing turn from Grant and another from Colin Farrell as ‘Coach,’ this comes across as one of the most unpleasant and racist films of recent years. ‘I’m an equal opportunities offender,’ boasts one character and sure enough, all the non-caucasian characters in the film – black, Jewish, Asian – are treated with the same insulting, tone-deaf approach. Furthermore, poor Michelle Dockery, who has pretty much the only speaking role for a woman in the entire film, is horribly served, her one scene of any consequence marred by a spurious and gratuitous sexual assault. The main problem, of course, is that Ritchie is doubtless blissfully unaware of these shortcomings, a privileged white man still trying to prove his ‘street’ credentials.

Society has moved on considerably since the 1990s, but Ritchie, it seems, has not. He’s still stuck in that decade. And this is not a promising start to 2020.

Philip Caveney

2.6 stars

Theatre Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s time again to reflect on the year that has passed, and to reconsider all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) theatre we have seen. What lingers in the memory, cuts through this crowded arena even after many months? Which ideas still keep us up at night; what audacious direction still makes us smile? Here – in chronological order – are our picks of 2019.

Ulster American – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Ireland; director – Gareth Nicholls

The Dark Carnival – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Matthew Lenton)

What Girls Are Made Of – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Cora Bissett; director Orla O’Loughlin)

Electrolyte – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – James Meteyard; director Donnacadh O’Briain)

The Duchess (of Malfi) – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Zinnie Harris)

Endless Second – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Theo Toksvig-Stewart/Madeleine Gray/Camilla Gurtler/ Cut the Cord)

Who Cares? – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Jessica Temple/Lizzie Mounter/Luke Grant/ Matt Woodhead/ LUNG & The Lowry)

Shine – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Olivier Leclair/Tiia-Mari Mäkinen/Hippana Theatre & From Start to Finnish)

Solaris – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Greig; director – Matthew Lutton)

Clybourne Park –  Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Bruce Norris; director – Michael Emans)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Rona Munro; director – Patricia Benecke)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writers – Allan Stewart & Alan McHugh; director – Ed Curtis

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s that time again when we award (virtual) bouquets to our favourite films of the year. As ever, the final choice may not always reflect the films that scored the highest at time of viewing, but rather those that have stayed with us most indelibly.

The Favourite (director – Yorgos Lanthimos; writers – Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Capernaum (director – Nadine Labaki; writers – Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany)

Eighth Grade (writer/director – Bo Burnham)

Booksmart (director – Olivia Wilde; writers – Emily Halperm, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman)

Beats (director – Brian Welsh; writer – Kieran Hurley)

Rocketman (director – Dexter Fletcher; writer – Lee Hall)

Animals (director – Sophie Hyde; writer – Emma Jane Unsworth)

Hustlers (director – Lorene Scafaria; writers – Lorene Scafaria and Jessica Pressler)

Joker (director – Todd Phillips; writers – Todd Phillips and Scott Silver)

Monos (director – Alejandro Landes; writers – Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos)

Honey Boy (director – Alma Har’el; writer – Shia LaBeouf)

Little Women (director – Greta Gerwig; writers – Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott)

 

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

21/12/19

In the early 70s, a young filmmaker called George Lucas had a vision. He wanted to make an epic space saga that would consist of nine episodes in total. (And one for which he would, naturally, retain all merchandising rights.) For reasons best known to himself, he decided to begin, in 1977, with episode four of what, for me, is one of the most overrated film franchises in history.

It began well enough – indeed, the first two films are great – but, from that point, it has descended into a whole series of misfires. There’s the one with the Ewoks. And those three awful prequels… oh God, those prequels!

Finally, here we are at episode nine: The Rise of Skywalker. After the bewildering cul de sac of The Last Jedi – and after the ignonimous departure of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow – J J Abrams is back on board to bring the saga to an end. This seemed like a sensible decision when it was first announced. After all, his The Force Awakens was easily the best Star Wars movie in a very long time, a sort of lively ‘best of’ compilation. If anybody could offer a safe pair of hands, surely he was the man? So it’s sad to report that (for my money, at least) this final chapter provides a decidedly lacklustre conclusion.

The plot: a familiar voice from the past is threatening the rebel resistance, which is still being commanded by Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, courtesy of some visual trickery). Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) head off on a quest to try to find where that pesky voice is coming from, accompanied by C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still intent on ruling the universe. And then… ah, who cares? It’s all lumpen and – dare I say it? – dull. I find myself bored after just twenty minutes of viewing. And considering the film opens with an all-out action sequence, that’s a problem.

So what has gone wrong? Is it the unnecessarily complicated storyline that sinks it? The seemingly endless procession of people we think are dead, but aren’t any more? (Maybe even the ones who actually are dead but don’t seem to know it – and I’m not talking about Carrie Fisher here, but the fictional characters.)

Is it the series of hopelessly turgid lightsaber duels that drag it down? The fact that people talk in a series of fridge magnet quotes? Is it that characters still can’t decide if they’re good eggs or dark, demonic nasties? Or is it simply that not enough time has passed since Jedi to allow audiences to summon up enough enthusiasm for this nonsense? Whatever the reasons, by the time we hit the (ho hum) extended space battle climax, I’m looking at my watch and praying for it to be over.

I appreciate that the diehard fans will rally round to support the film, because, well, that’s what Star Wars freaks tend to do but, apart from a couple of scenes here and there, I can’t honestly say that I enjoy this. And that’s a shame because, despite the curse of diminishing returns, Star Wars has had a remarkably good run down the decades and I want it to go out on a high.

Of course, I’m not so dumb as to imagine it’s really going to end here. As long as there’s more money to be made, there will be spin-offs and prequels and homages and tie-ins.

But I seriously doubt I’ll be watching them.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Muppet Christmas Carol

18/12/19

Most film fans have those puzzling gaps in their backlists – movies they’ve always meant to watch but, somehow, have never gotten around to. Over the years, I’ve gone to considerable lengths in my attempts to rectify such situations. (I’m the guy who sat doggedly through the six hour silent version of Abel Gance’s Napolean, just so I could say I’d seen it.) But, until yesterday, I had never seen The Muppet Christmas Carol. And neither had Susan. Admitting to it on social media unleashed a stream of comments from people who have long cherished it as a yearly festive treat. What were we thinking of? Were we crazy?

It’s not that I have an aversion to the Muppets. Far from it. I loved their TV series back in the day, I’ve seen most of Jim Henson’s cinematic offerings (including The Dark Crystal) and, as a former drummer, whenever I see Animal’s leering countenance, I find myself smiling in something like recognition. But, nevertheless, I missed the film on its initial release in 1992 and, after that, never cared to watch it on the small screen. So, when I see it listed as one of the Cameo’s Christmas offerings, I resolve to finally put the matter to rest.

And of course, my friends are right. It’s an absolute charmer, a retelling of Dickens’ classic tale that sticks very closely to the original, even incorporating many of the great writer’s own words. It simply swaps some of the key characters for cuddly puppets and throws in several jaunty songs by Paul Williams. What’s not to like?

There’s something so right about Kermit playing Bob Cratchit that it’s hard not to cheer – while turning Fezziwig into Fozziewig and having him played by Fozzie Bear is little short of genius. Dickens himself makes an appearance, played by The Great Gonzo and aided by his friend, Rizzo the Rat. It’s always been a wonder to me how Henson’s simple creations seem to come alive in front of the cameras, but they absolutely do. I even shed genuine tears over the scene where Bob and his wife, Emily (Miss Piggy), mourn the passing of their son, Tiny Tim. And yes, I realise I’m crying over a few scraps of green felt, but I can’t help myself.

It’s more than just the puppetry, of course. The delightful production design by Val Strazovec gives the film an enchanting visual flair, and I love the supernatural elements, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who looks like he’s crept out of a movie by Guillermo del Toro.

Best of all is Michael Caine’s accomplished performance as Scrooge, resolutely refusing to tip a wink or give a nudge to the audience, playing the role with absolute gravitas. It’s this serious element at the heart of the story which makes all the buffoonery around him resonate. Caine has made many movies over the years, but this surely ranks as one his finest achievements.

So yes, I’m glad I finally ticked that box. The Muppet Christmas Carol is a heartwarming delight. And it’s only taken me twenty-seven years to come to that opinion.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney