Review – 1917, Northampton Filmhouse, 16th January 2020

1917 posterOdd, perhaps, to start a review about a film by talking about another film, but do you remember Peter Weir’s Gallipoli? I saw it with my dear old university friend Jeff, now sadly no longer with us; with nothing to do on a Friday night, we’d been out for a few pints then, charged with bonhomie, decided to catch a movie – and we settled on Gallipoli. As the ghastly inevitability of the carnage of war grew stronger and stronger through the film, by the end we were stunned into a sad silence. Walking back to our student digs, all Jeff could say was “well that’s one way to ruin an evening.”

-Big Spoiler Alert –

it all starts here1917 reminded me of Gallipoli because both films examined a strong bond between two soldiers, and, when one of them dies, you get a big wallop of teardrop in your eyes and wonder how mankind can do this to each other. Answer: if we’re still doing it today after millennia of war, why would we ever stop? The two films also share similar climaxes – Will Mel Gibson’s Frank Dunne get his message to the frontline in time to stop the final wave of troops going over the top (and thus save the life of his friend)? And will George Mackay’s Lance Corporal Schofield get his message to Colonel Mackenzie in time to prevent the 2nd Devons being wiped out in an equally pointless charge? You probably already know the outcome.

ErinmoreSam Mendes’ 1917 is, on the face of it, a magnificently impressive film. Giving the appearance of being filmed in one shot – although, for practical purposes, you can actually see the joins, and it was probably done in four or five – its exciting, pacey sweep follows Schofield and his pal Blake as they risk everything in pursuit of getting a message from General Erinmore to Colonel Mackenzie on the other side of No Man’s Land. Technically, one can only marvel at the detailed rehearsal and choreography that must have preceded those long shots, the faultless delivery of every line by a large cast, the planned positioning of the camera equipment in amongst the men in the trenches, and even the expectation that a well-placed rat will do the right thing. The “one shot” look adds enormous suspense, urgency and a real sense on the part of the audience of actually being there. Truly an extraordinary achievement.

Schofield and BlakeThe story itself – apparently inspired by a tale that Sam Mendes’ grandfather told him – takes a back seat in comparison with the style and the realism. Two men are on a mission to deliver a message – will they make it? Apart from tidying up some loose ends with the brother of one of the men, that’s about it, although it does also makes some very clear points about the hierarchy of life in the trenches and how the class system dictated what kind of position you held in the army. However, the excitement and the suspense of the action mean you forgive any holes in the storyline.

in the German dugoutYou do have to suspend some disbelief from time to time; there’s a scene where Schofield is running around some ruins, being shot at by Germany’s least efficient sniper; he really ought to have got him with at least one of those bullets. That scene also takes on an air of games console – for a few minutes war has become a game rather than a horror. Look at this still, for example – it’s pure X-Box. Schofield in the ruinsThe occasional use of powerfully surging music, that swells up to fill the cinema with heroic passion, means that at times you feel the film is glorifying war. Maybe that’s inevitable – it’s been years since I’ve seen a war film, so I’ve not much with which to compare it. For my own part, I much preferred the scenes inside the trenches, where you saw the everyday tedium of war mixed with fear and disgust. That’s where the film totally succeeds, in my opinion.

MackenzieI’m not sure there’s meant to be any element of fun in this film for the audience, but I have to admit I enjoyed the star-spotting moments; a wealth of famous, top quality actors who were hired to deliver one line, or share the screen for about ten seconds. Starting with Colin Firth’s bluff Erinmore and ending with Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant Mackenzie, blink in the trenches and you’ll miss Jamie Parker, and Adrian Scarborough briefly lending Schofield a scrap of comfort. Richard McCabe never gets out of his jeep or even faces the camera as the grumpy Colonel Collins, Nabhaan Rizwan has two tiny scenes as a comradely Sepoy, and Bodyguard’s Richard Madden has almost five minutes at the end as Blake’s brother in a very smartly performed, emotional-though-stiff-upper-lip performance.

Let him throughBut the film completely revolves around the two central performances of Dean-Charles Chapman as the brave and ultra-keen Blake, and George Mackay as the more cynical but ultimately heroic Schofield. The two never put a foot wrong with two technically perfect performances that may well stay with you long past the final reel. It’s not a perfect film but I’d be very hard hearted not to give it anything other than five Sparkles.

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Review – Knives Out, Northampton Filmhouse, 19th December 2019

KO PosterRegular readers (bless you!) of my blog will know that I am an Agatha Christie fan and am currently re-working my way through her oeuvre on my Agatha Christie Challenge. So it was a no-brainer that I would want to see Rian Johnson’s homage to her style, Knives Out. And, in the best tradition of not telling you whodunit, I promise I won’t! Mr Johnson made us promise at the beginning of the film anyway, and I’m not going to be the one who told you that the policeman did it. (Damn!!!)

A very grim familyIt may be an homage to Christie but the first few scenes are pure Sleuth, mixed with a spot of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. The walls of the Thrombey family mansion are crammed with posters celebrating the works of the great writer and patriarch Harlan Thrombey, and there’s even one of those laughing sailor dolls lurking around, which made me think this was going to become a psychological two-hander. But, no – the doll is mere window dressing, and there’s precious little that’s psychological about the plot – the motive is much more basic than that. Poirot would actually be really disappointed.

HarlanSo, who killed Harlan Thrombey? That’s not a spoiler – he’s revealed with his throat slit within the first minute of action. At least it’s one of those thrillers that starts with the crime and works backwards, which is much more likely to arrest your attention than when you get all the clues and motives first and then the crime happens about an hour later. And there’s indeed a host of suspects, brought to life by a star-strangled cast, each one outperforming the others in terms of their suspiciousness and lack of likeability.

A grim familyAnd that’s a major problem with the film as I see it. The suspects are all (bar one) varying degrees of unpleasant, and heavily caricatured – Rian Johnson has said that the hokey cult 1970s musical Something’s Afoot, which was a Christie spoof populated by stereotypes, was an influence on this film, and I think it works to its detriment. There’s only one sympathetic suspect – and it very much turns into her story – but the rest of them are so vile that they deserve everything coming to them. It was this lack of interest in the characters’ outcomes that decided Mrs Chrisparkle to give in and go to sleep after hanging on for the first 90 minutes.

Blanc and MartaYes, there are some wonderfully quirky moments. I enjoyed Detective Blanc’s rendition of Losing My Mind from Sondheim’s Follies whilst waiting in the car; these cops obviously enjoy their musical theatre as there’s also a fleeting reference to Hamilton. There’s a comic moment in the heat of the final denouement which is very nicely done (although completely predictable). A suspect deliberately stomping through the mud to obliterate footprints is very funny. But, on the whole, the film comes across as overwhelmingly dark – not dark as in film noir, but dark as in why doesn’t someone open the curtains – and what’s meant to suggest suspense and eeriness just ends up being gloomy. It lacks light and shade, as though its dial is firmly set to murky.

JoniAs Detective Blanc, Daniel Craig has adopted a vocal drawl unlike any other known to man – kudos to him for keeping it up for over two hours. It’s an engaging performance nonetheless, although at times he feels a little more like Clouseau than Poirot. More entertaining vocal tics come from the constricted cords of Toni Collette, as Joni the Insta Influencer, and it was a pleasure to see Frank Oz in the cameo role of the Thrombey family lawyer. But it’s Ana de Armas as Marta who makes the film watchable as the only character with whom we can really connect, and her marvellous performance smashes the movie into the realms of 3 stars from me.

CopsAs for the solution to this heinous crime – well, as a Facebook relationship status might confess, it’s complicated, and I challenge anyone to answer successfully the question that Mrs C put to me on the way home – so, whodunit? – in full. I had to re-read the synopsis online twice in order to be certain that I fully understood exactly who was guilty of what. Gimme the ballAnd, believe me, I was paying attention. It must have been the accents.

Backbeat, the word on the street says this could be the first in a series of films featuring Detective Blanc. They may have to consider subtitles.

Review – The Good Liar, Northampton Filmhouse, 3rd December 2019

The Good LiarSometimes it’s easy to talk about a film or a play without giving away too many spoilers. However, in the case of The Good Liar, it’s virtually impossible. Roy and Betty meet over dinner, having been chatting on a dating website; he seems in frail health so, a few nights later, Betty allows him to stay over in her house rather than walking all the way up the stairs to his own apartment. But, actually,he’s in perfect health and appears to be part of a gang – or at least a partnership – of swindlers, defrauding greedy but stupid investors of their hard earned cash. OK – that’s not too much of an opening spoiler.

on the platformThere is, however, a basic twist to the story – and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a thriller if there wasn’t, so that in itself isn’t a spoiler. However, if you have any inkling of this twist in advance, it will completely ruin it for you. So, if you want a quick spoiler-free review, all I’ll say is that it’s enjoyable, well-performed, although with some unnecessary gore and unexpectedly bad language from Sir Ian, and, frankly, in some respects rather an unpleasant film. If you like the sound of a dramatic pairing between Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren, then you’ll love it. And who wouldn’t fancy that? Now, if you want no more spoilers, bookmark this page, go and see the film and then come back. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with dissecting it….

back home… I think they’ve gone. Phew! Now I can tell you what I really think. SPOILER ALERT!!! (Just in case) The strength and weakness of this film is in the casting. Sir Ian and Dame Helen are a powerful combo, and there are many exciting, tense, witty and dramatic scenes between the two. But do you really think an actor like Dame Helen would have taken a role as an elderly woman defrauded of her assets, made to look stupid and weak? Naaaa. Now, if it had been Dame Judi, she might have built up an emotional image of noble fragility and crumbled beautifully in front of us all as a downtrodden old dear. But this is Dame Helen. From the Janis Joplin-like Maggie in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles to D.I. Jane Tennison and many roles before or after, she’s always the spunky, spiky, unpredictable, gritty strong woman. And if anyone’s going to outsmart Sir Ian’s Roy, it’s her Betty. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought right from the start of the film that her character has her own agenda.

Mirren and McKellenRevenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and that’s proved without a doubt in this finely-detailed plot to put right a wrong over half a century old. No wonder it’s set in 2009; if it had been set in 2019, the past would probably be too distant for them to do anything about it. When you discover the elaborateness of the pre-planning, before the substance of the film gets underway, you feel both wow, that’s clever and wow, that’s far-fetched in about 50-50 measure. Nevertheless, the film does weave an enjoyably intricate web of deceit that is entertaining to observe, and, despite the occasional horror and gore, there is something delightfully British afternoon-tea about the whole thing. At times it feels like an episode of Midsomer Murders as directed by Quentin Tarantino.

THE GOOD LIARSir Ian and Dame Helen dominate the film throughout, and with acting of their quality, that’s no surprise. A very small cast adds to a sense of claustrophobia. Personally, I find it hard to watch Jim Carter and not see Mr Carson from Downton Abbey; here he plays Roy’s partner-in-crime Vincent, like a spiv Mr Carson, hair bouffoned up and with a constant eye for a cash deal. Russell Tovey plays Russell Tovey playing Stephen, Betty’s grandson, a suspicious lad with an unexpected grasp of Nazi history, who spends most of the film acting as Roy’s chauffeur with bad grace. There’s a nice performance from Mark Lewis Jones as Bryn, the hapless investor who bumbles his way through a deal and is sacrificed for his pains. But there’s no doubt the film belongs to its two big stars.

Helen MirrenMrs Chrisparkle was finding it a very unhappy film until the twist started to reveal itself; clearly she was empathising with Betty just a wee bit too much, and it’s just a bit too unimaginative to base a plot on a ruthless old git manipulating an innocent old girl. But Dame Helen isn’t an innocent old girl, never has been, never will be. Very watchable and enjoyable, a couple of moments when my dislike of violence made my stomach retch slightly, and an ending where one plot to deceive fails catastrophically and another plot succeeds miraculously. Recommended, but primarily for the acting.

Review – Toy Story 4, Northampton Filmhouse, 2nd July 2019

Toy Story Poster“Can you remember what happened at the end of Toy Story 3”, I asked Mrs Chrisparkle as we walked to the cinema last night. “Nope,” she replied, “but I’m sure there’ll be some kind of catch up at the beginning”. And sure enough, the film opens with “Nine years ago….”; and you sit there and think, was it really that long since we last saw Woody and his toy pals in a series of manic episodes of mild peril? Yes it was! And, because I know you’re trying to remember the date, the first film came out in 1995. Some of those ten-year olds who saw the first movie in that year are probably grandparents by now. Well, not quite, but you get my drift.

Woody and ForkyWoody, now handed over to Bonnie by Andy, is no longer her favourite toy although he still commands some respect in the toy community. Bonnie’s off to kindergarten, and she’s scared (who wouldn’t be?) Woody sneaks into her backpack to give her some support on the orientation day. But things start to brighten up for her when she makes a toy from a spork, some pipe cleaners and a lolly stick, rescued from the bin by Woody; welcome to the world, Forky. Bonnie is much attached to Forky, but Forky doesn’t want to be a toy; his low self-esteem makes him feel he’s only suited to the trash can. Bonnie’s parents take her on a mini road-trip to soften her up for returning to kindergarten; but Forky’s existential crisis causes him to hurl himself from the campervan, and, naturally, Woody takes it on himself to rescue him.

Bo to the rescueThus separated from the rest of the family, Woody now has to track them down at the funfair site where they have parked; but, en route, he bumps into Bo-Peep, to whom he said goodbye years ago… and that complicates matters. Things always get messy when there’s a whiff of romance in the air. Will Woody and Forky reunite with Bonnie? Will Bo-Peep continue her strong solo woman lifestyle? And what about the voiceless doll Gabby Gabby, who wants to steal Woody’s voicebox so that she becomes desirable again? I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to watch the film to find out!

Bonnie and the birth of ForkyIf you’ve seen the previous films (of course you have) then you’ll be itching to know what becomes of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the gang. And I can tell you that you won’t be remotely disappointed, it’s everything you hope to get from a Toy Story movie and probably more. There’s a level of reflection, introspection even, in this film which, if it was evident in the previous incarnations, receives greater emphasis here.

BuzzIn a lovely reversal of the human experience of this situation, the social stigma of being a childless toy is so overwhelming in this film’s universe that if you’re not childless, you have to whisper it so as not to upset the others. Attachment to a kid is the ultimate in existence. If you don’t have a kid, you’re not really a toy – discuss. The concept of listening to and acting on your inner voice is also brought to the forefront, with Woody’s highly developed sense of responsibility leaving the others frequently nonplussed as to his recklessness. Buzz tries to get a grip on the inner voice concept, and relates it to the random automated announcements that he emits whenever he presses his belt buttons. Gabby’s inner voice is silenced and the only way she can expect a happy future is to deprive another toy of his own voicebox.

GabbyTechnically, of course, it’s superb. The animation is a constant delight, with the vivid funfair, the dusty old antique shop, the torrential rain, for example, all being totally convincing. Did Woody and Buzz always have the identical pointy nose? The action is fast and furious, the script is funny, the characterisations are spot on, and the emotions are, definitely, real.

Bunny and DuckyNo expense was spared in recruiting the finest actors for bringing these toys to life, and they all do a brilliant job. Most of the old favourites are there; Slinky the dog, Mr Pricklepants the luvvie actor hedgehog, the Potato Heads (despite his death in 2017, Don Rickles is still the voice of Mr Potato Head, using unused audio recordings from the previous films), Rex the hyper-anxious dinosaur, and Hamm the cynical piggybank.

Duke CaboomIn addition to Forky and Gabby, New Toys on the Block include the streetwise compact police officer Giggles McDimples, carnival toys Bunny and Ducky, nightmare henchmen the Bensons, and, my favourite, wannabe macho poseur stunt rider Duke Caboom, who fails to live up to his advert’s hype as far as adventurousness is concerned, but loves to strike a pose on his bike – with hilarious but totally believable voicing from Keanu Reeves.

Gabby and the BensonsMemorably enjoyable moments include the farcical sat nav instructions from Mrs Potato Head and Buttercup the hardnosed unicorn, the intimidating presence of the ventriloquist dummy Bensons, the unpredictable antics of Bo-Peep’s sheep, and the repulsive regurgitation of Giggles when she’s spat out like a furball.

Woody and BoThe resolution to the story was not at all what I expected; it breaks the rules as to how a toy should behave – and is really endearing as a result. However, despite the emotional content, it didn’t create any activity in the tear duct department, unlike my friend the Squire of Sidcup who saw it with his dad and it reduced both of them to blubbering messes. However, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film – at 100 minutes it’s the perfect length – and a more than worthy successor to its three prequels. If you’ve got any old toys hanging around from your childhood – go give them a hug. They need it.

Review – Rocketman, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th June 2019

Rocketman posterMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen on seeing this, but I heard great things, so I took the opportunity to nip into the Northampton Filmhouse by myself whilst she was slaying business dragons in America. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Elton John fan, exactly, but I have a very soft spot for a number of his songs, and I was intrigued to see what they do with all this potent raw material – a life of excess and a musical back catalogue that’s probably sold billions rather than millions.

Taron Egerton and Jamie BellRocketman is, on one hand, a stereotypical biopic taking us through the life of Elton John from his early boyhood up to the time when he crashed into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting bursting with crises. We see his suburban-comfortable but emotionally starved early days, with a distant military father who cannot cope with emotion and a vacuous mother whose only love is for herself – thank heavens for his kindly nan, Ivy, who was the only one to take any interest in young Reggie. We see him taking his first steps at the Royal Academy of Music, then breaking into the music business, getting signed to Dick James Music, starting a writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, making and selling records and – pretty much instantly – hitting America on tour. And whilst his commercial success escalates, his personal life deteriorates; the only constant in his life being Taupin, with whom he famously has never had an argument through fifty years of collaboration – that’s some achievement.

Taron Egerton rockingOn the other hand, the film is a fantasy musical, with much in common with other jukebox musicals, using songs from an artist’s repertoire to complement the various stages of their life. But the first musical number reminded me more of how La-La-Land starts (in other words, brilliantly, then never regaining that opening buzz) with a big song-and-dance extravaganza in the street. Then the rest of the songs are woven into Elton John’s story, some as concert material, but many in a more stylised, almost ethereal manner; and not only sung by John. In fact, one of the most emotionally powerful moments is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, performed by Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin; one of those brilliant cover versions that completely rewrites the original.

Taron Egerton about to fallThe fact that the songs don’t appear chronologically disturbed me a little at first. Your Song (1970), for example, his first hit, is the seventh number to be performed during the film, whilst the first song in the film, The Bitch is Back, wasn’t released until 1974. Of course, that doesn’t matter with a show like Mamma Mia, where there is an invented story around which the Abba songs snugly fit; but that’s not the case for Rocketman, ostensibly a chronological biopic. However, it’s all performed so beautifully well, and the songs fit the various moods of the film so perfectly, that I had to tell myself to stop being so anal about it.

Taron EgertonWhat impressed me most of all about this film was the sheer quality of the attention to detail and its absolute verisimilitude throughout. The three actors who play Elton John at various stages of his life look and sing so very similarly to the real person; they even capture his smile – teeth slightly exposed, top lip lifted up – you don’t realise that’s how EJ smiles until you see the actors do it. The costumes throughout are a perfect mimic of his concert gear; the film’s finale is an (I believe) 100% correct recreation of the promotional video for his 1983 hit I’m Still Standing. That’s all incredibly impressive.

Richard Madden and Taron EgertonAs we know, Sir Elton has led a life of excess; we see the alcohol, we see the drugs. But what of the sex? In interview, Elton John said he had a lot of sex, but the film – despite its regrettable censorship in Russia to remove all traces of gayness – implies otherwise. It would appear that it’s not until he’s the recipient of a surprise kiss by one of the musicians on his first American tour that there’s any uncertainty over his sexuality; and any such doubts are put to bed (if you’ll pardon the expression) when he meets John Reid and, as a result, leaves DJM and takes Reid as his new manager/lover. But that’s all we know of his sex life; you might have thought he was completely celibate outside that relationship, and I have a sense that the film misrepresents his life in this department somewhat. In fact, the only other relationships we see him involved in are with Bernie Taupin’s landlady – that didn’t work, obvs – and the loveless, sterile few weeks of his good publicity marriage to Renate. His long-term relationship with David Furnish takes place long after the timespan of the film has ended. At the end of the day, the film shows that all Elton John ever really wanted was someone to love him, which was something everyone in his life was unable to provide except for Taupin and his nan.

Taron Egerton and Richard MaddenThe performances are delightfully strong throughout. It’s now too late to say of Taron Egerton that a star is born because of his Kingsman roles, but it’s definitely a star performance, with his huge on-screen presence, tremendous voice and just that magic je ne sais quoi. Please read my P. S. below to see how he wouldn’t have got where he is today if it wasn’t for me (I know, I’m so influential). He just exudes quality and authority; he “gets” Elton’s charisma even when he’s portraying him at his most down-and-out. Absolutely first class.

 Jamie Bell and Taron EgertonJamie Bell is superb as Taupin, that ever-reliable presence, a very open and honest guy who’s always the most supportive figure in EJ’s life. You really get the sense of the two of them together as being great mates, getting into a few scrapes but always there for each other – it’s a very heart-warming portrayal. Richard Madden plays Reid as though he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie; terse, arrogant, dynamic and highly convincing. You could really see how he could use sex as a weapon in the war of manipulation.

Steven MackintoshBryce Dallas Howard is also excellent as EJ’s deeply unpleasant mother Sheila, and there’s another mini star turn from Steven Mackintosh as his father; regimented, stiff-upper-lip, finding it impossible to conceal his total distaste for his son’s artistic interests. There’s a truly emotional scene when the successful Elton pays a visit to his estranged father and meets his two sons from his subsequent re-marriage – so, his own new half-brothers – and there’s no attempt to bridge any emotional gap between them, even though we can see how close his father is to his new progeny. You’d be devastated if it happened to you.

Matthew IlsleyBig mentions for Kit Connor and especially Matthew Ilsley as the young Reggies (older and younger) who make those opening scenes of the film such a joy. There are also some fantastic cameos from actors you’d queue to see at the theatre, like Sharon D Clarke as the counsellor, Harriet Walter as the Royal Academy of Music tutor, Ophelia Lovibond as Arabella, Celine Schoenmaker as Renate and Jason Pennycooke as Wilson. Blink and you’ll miss Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s Layton Williams as an American band member. And it’s lovely to see The Duchess of Duke Street herself, Gemma Jones, bringing warmth and character to the role of Ivy.

Bryce Dallas HowardThere’s a point in the film where the pace of the storytelling slows down, roughly coinciding with EJ’s descent into addiction and his increased antisocial behaviour; and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the film sagged a little during those scenes. Otherwise, it’s an eloquent account of the first two-thirds of Sir Elton’s amazing life (what’s that you say? Leaving room for a sequel bringing us up to date if the film were a success?) and musically and visually it’s astounding entertainment. Plenty of Oscars and BAFTAs up for grabs here I expect. And why not?

the familyP. S. So, Taron Egerton’s first stage role was in The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre in 2012, the year he graduated from RADA. If I may quote myself, “in the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise”. High praise indeed; you heard it here first. None of the newspaper critics commented on his performance. #justsaying

Review – The Favourite, Northampton Filmhouse, 26th January 2019

tf posterAs long as I can remember I’ve been a theatre-type much more than a movie-type, so we don’t go to the films as often as most people. Surprise, surprise, we went twice last week! On Wednesday we saw the charming and enjoyable Stan & Ollie, and on Saturday night it was the turn of The Favourite.

olivia colmanI didn’t have much in the way of expectations, other than believing it to be a madcap and rather black comedy featuring Queen Anne. And of course, Olivia Colman, as the Royal Personage Herself, who was the prime reason we chose to see it. She can do no wrong in my book. And, to an extent, she continues to do no wrong as she is by far the best thing about this film; the other two good things being her co-stars, Rachel Weisz as the sinister and cruel Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as the irrepressibly optimistic and ruthlessly manipulative Abigail Masham.

The plot can be summarised thus: two women vie for the attention of Queen Anne in order to gain power and status for themselves, and are not above indulging in a little sexual shenanigans to get it. Err… that’s it.

rachel weiszMany people I like, indeed love, and whose opinions I respect and admire, have told me what a jolly good film this is. Black comedy, rule breaking, innovative, savage, hilarious; toying with historical fact and historical fiction to create its own dystopian society. And, to be fair, it does achieve this very well. The one aspect of the film that amused me more than anything was how the queen made life or death decisions on the tactics of war with France at a complete whim and clearly without the first clue as to the logic of the battlefield. Because of the regal regime of terror and violence, and unctuous supplication to the crown, the politicians and the military can merely bow down, do her bidding and accept her stupidity. The queen only cares about herself, and her self-indulgences: eating and drinking too much, playing with her pet rabbits, and occasional cunnilingus provided by Abigail. The queen is a truly grotesque characterisation and Ms Colman carries it off with her usual aplomb.

I also know some people – not so many, but still significant – who didn’t rate the film at all. And I have heard of people walking out, which, as I was watching it, didn’t particularly surprise me. If you don’t “get” this film, it’s going to do nothing for you. Sadly, I am among that number. I didn’t get this film at all.

emma stoneIn fact, I got the sense all the way through that this was a film trying to shock for shock’s sake, rather than honestly and organically unfolding its story and characters. I felt like we’d gone back fifty years, and this was some creation of a wild child Ken Russell-type, perhaps with a spot of Andy Warhol or Derek Jarman thrown in. It came across as trying to push the boundaries of what would be allowed by a censor, even though those boundaries have long been established. There’s a brothel scene, so let’s have a bunch of female extras queueing up with their breasts out. There’s a shower scene (why?) so let’s have some more naked female extras having freezing buckets of water chucked over them so we can watch them suffer. Let’s see how many times we can get away with the main characters vomiting, and try to make it humorous by having flunkeys capture the puke in a silver ewer. Let’s see how uncomfortable we can make an audience by having someone tread heavily on a rabbit, for no reason other than because they can, so it cries out in pain. It strikes me that this is a director struggling with late-onset puberty.

tfEverything is done to excess in this film. Now, it may well be that it was an era of excess, so that it’s arguably a reasonable tactic to employ. But there are limits; even “doing it to excess” is done to excess. When Abigail gets off the coach at the beginning of the film, she can’t just get out of it, she has to be pushed out so that she falls face first in the midden. When she’s in conversation with the MP who wants her to spy on the queen, it can’t just end there, she has to be pushed head first so that she falls flat down a hill (same joke twice, well done.) When she has offended protocol by attending to the queen’s inflamed legs without permission, she isn’t simply dismissed, she’s punished with three savage strokes (was going to be six but it was curtailed) of the birch performed in full view for general entertainment. When anyone disapproves of something, they shout. Especially the queen. She shouts loudly, gracelessly, savagely, ear-piercingly; no filter, as the Insta crowd say. This may be all very clever but, boy, does it get on your nerves.

nicholas-houltEven the cinematography has the feel of someone who’s been let off the leash for the first time, playing with effects to see if they work. What does this button do? Oooh it’s fish-eye! Let’s start lots of the scenes fish-eye style for no apparent reason whatsoever apart from seeing what it looks like. And what’s this button? Wow, it’s widescreen! Let’s use this as another tool for disorienting the audience, yay! Have you heard about this thing where you can layer one image on top of another so that it looks really groovy? Let’s include that for no reason whatever! Oh, and have you finished doing the titles yet? Oh great, you’ve used an ornate font and centre-justified them so that they look like a block of words that’s impossible to read! A perfect symptom of a product that’s all show and no substance!

queen anneNo, I’m not buying this. 120 minutes including the occasional chuckle but many more wtf moments. Mrs Chrisparkle managed to stay awake but was severely bored. I wasn’t bored, I was just stunned by its assumption that we’d fall for old-fashioned shock tactics straight out of the late 60s. There’s probably a very good film hidden in there somewhere. Go away and do it again.

joe alwynP. S. I forgot the ducks. I did like the ducks. BAFTA nomination for Best Waterfowl in a Supporting Role.

Review – Stan & Ollie, Northampton Filmhouse, 23rd January 2019

stan and ollieFor how many more years are we all going to remember the comedy giants of the early age of cinema? When I was a lad, the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin were shown on TV all the time. I guess they weren’t that old at the time – yikes, where does the time go?! Bob Monkhouse had a regular TV show where he indulged in the comedy nostalgia – Mad Movies – and kept alive the antics of the Keystone Cops and others. My late father was a big fan of Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle – which today is like saying you enjoy Gary Glitter – and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle loved Laurel and Hardy. She saw them at the London Palladium in 1947; it was one of her favourite memories.

The Biograph GirlBut what do these old stars mean to today’s YouTube generation? It’s inevitable that at some point the memories will fade for good. There’s a sad and beautiful song from a long-forgotten 1980 musical, The Biograph Girl, about silent film star Mary Pickford, where the advent of the talkies meant that no one wanted to see the silent oldies anymore: “Put it in the tissue paper, they won’t want that shadow till another day, will we be reissued later, or condemned for life upon a shelf to stay?” In live theatre, my great-aunt, born in 1905, adored the old music-hall artists and would sing the songs of Marie Lloyd, Hetty King and Vesta Tilley. Even today, I still think The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery is one of the most charming songs I know – and there’s no one alive who was around when that was in the charts (so to speak). And talking of the charts, that always used to be one way of keeping old songs alive. The recent death of the much-loved Windsor Davies has reminded us how his version of Whispering Grass with Don Estelle, reached No 1 in the summer of 1975. Laurel and Hardy’s On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine spent four weeks at either No 2 or No 3 around Christmas the same year. Can’t imagine either of those happening today.

the boysBut while there are new releases like Stan and Ollie hitting our screens, maybe interest in these old characters will hang around for a few years yet. In case you didn’t know (I’m sure you must) Laurel and Hardy were box-office dynamite. Between 1921 and 1951 they made no less than 106 films, including 34 early silent films, and 27 full-length feature films – full-length in those days meant about an hour or so. They had the classic, visually hilarious double-act look, with Stan Laurel as a beanpole simpleton and Oliver Hardy as the wise-cracking fat man, which formed the basis of a number of subsequent double-acts – Little and Large, for instance, come to mind. As a kid, I found Oliver Hardy incredibly funny, but Stan Laurel something of a hanger-on, and I remember being amazed when the Dowager told me that it was Laurel who was the creative genius and comic innovator, whereas Hardy simply did what he was told; and that’s something that comes across very strongly in this new film.

Steve CooganThe film starts off with “the boys” on the set of Way Out West, where we see them shoot their famous comedy dance routine which recurs throughout this film, as they would later incorporate it into their stage act. But there’s confrontation with producer Hal Roach over Laurel’s general behaviour, and intimations that there may be problems ahead when Laurel’s contract with the studio runs out before Hardy’s. Hal Roach kept Hardy on for one more film after Laurel left the studio, Zenobia, featuring an elephant, where the actor Harry Langdon took on the Laurel role. From this awkwardness rises Stan and Ollie’s strongest theme, that of loyalty and partnership.

john c reillyFast forward to 1953, and the boys are in England, starting a tour of theatres which would culminate in a London date and then filming a new movie based on the story of Robin Hood. But their fortunes are down. In Newcastle, they check into a dismal looking pub for three nights, in preparation for their performances at the Queen’s Hall, (not the prestigious Theatre Royal). They meet producer Bernard Delfont, but he’s much more interested in promoting his new protégé Norman Wisdom. There’s little publicity, audiences are thin on the ground, and it’s painful to watch. In order to avoid cancelling shows, Delfont subtly tricks them into doing some publicity, and then the audiences start to turn up. By the time their wives arrive in the UK, Delfont has secured them two weeks at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

drinksBut the tensions in their relationship return to the surface as Laurel reminds Hardy about the elephant movie. Barely talking to each other, their tour continues to Worthing, but when they’re judging a beauty pageant for publicity, Hardy has a heart attack. He can’t work – in fact, he’s told to retire. Delfont wants Laurel to double up with comedy actor Nobby Cook for the rest of the tour, but would that mean Laurel showing the same disloyalty that he’s accused Hardy? And what’s going to happen to the film of Robin Hood?

shirley henderson and nina ariandaIt’s a well-written, frequently funny, slightly sentimental and thoroughly nostalgic story brought to life by some extremely good performances and characterisations. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are amazingly convincing as the dynamic duo, Mr Reilly in particular becoming the spitting image of Oliver Hardy, after having to spend (apparently) four hours in make up before each shoot. Their mannerisms, their vocal tics, their walks, their facial expressions are recreated lovingly to perfection. Rufus Jones is also terrific as Bernard Delfont, persistently manipulative and with both eyes on the finances but always impeccably polite about it. There’s another superb double act in the form of Mrs Laurel and Mrs Hardy; Shirley Henderson is Hardy’s devoted wife Lucille, a mouse masquerading as a rottweiler, and highly protective of her Ollie; and Nina Arianda plays Laurel’s abrasive wife Ida, drinking his drinks, encouraging spats with Lucille, and hilariously refusing to sit next to Delfont for no apparent reason. There are some lovely minor supporting performances, with John Henshaw as the egregiously chirpy Nobby Cook, Stephanie Hyam (?) playing Miffin’s dopey receptionist and Delfont’s dreadfully hollow charity friends, whom I can’t identify from the rather under-detailed cast lists. How’s the piano? is a priceless line when you get to it.

steve coogan and john c reillyTo join a couple of metaphors, it doesn’t shake too many trees but at the same time it does exactly what it says on the can. Buoyed up by its excellent performances, you’ll enjoy this if you have happy memories of Laurel and Hardy or if you want to find out a bit more about them without sitting through some old black and white comedy.

steve coogan and nina ariandaP. S. Laurel and Hardy appearing at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Really? Are you sure? At the time, the premises were operated by Mecca and were only licensed as a ballroom from 1945 onwards. According to Mander and Mitchenson’s The Theatres of London (the bible for all things theatre-based as far as I’m concerned) there were no live performances on that particular stage from 1939 until 1963. Indeed, the London County Council (and I’m quoting from the book) “stated in 1952 that the highest offer received for use as a theatre was £11,500, as against the dance-hall offer of £20,000; but it would need £50,000 to restore it to theatrical use.” I’m not saying this is pure fiction, but if you have any definitive information on Laurel and Hardy performing at the Lyceum in 1953/4, please let me know!

at the savoyP. P. S. Not only do Messrs Coogan and Reilly perform the Way Out West dance with admirable accuracy, they also give us an immaculate performance of On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I defy you to walk home after the movie and not break into the chorus.