Based on: West Side Story by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents
Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Rachel Zegler etc.
Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński
Choreography: Justin Peck
Music by: Leonard Bernstein
*INEVITABLE SPOILERS WITH THIS STORY*
Well, if you removed all the songs and added more dialogue to West Side Story (2021), then I guarantee it would make an amazing stage play. Oh, it has already. I thought it felt extremely familiar. Silly jokes aside, one often hears the decrying of originality in Hollywood cinema. Sequels, prequels, remakes, adaptations and reboots are plentiful as big business. Known quantities are a better bet to executives than original never-heard-of speculative screenplays. And not everyone is averse to re-doing fully developed properties. Thus, one of the most talented filmmakers of a generation, Steven Spielberg, has delivered a stunning remake of a film adaptation of a stage musical that was developed from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
You know the story. If you don’t, stop reading. Young star-crossed lovers fall in love against their families wishes. Their romance explodes into unbridled passion as war escalates between the two rival factions. As the lovers attempt to find a way to be together the conflict brings about eventual tragedy. Shakespeare was a genius and knew how to structure and spin a yarn. No surprise his works have been adapted infinitely to much success. One of the greatest was the musical West Side Story (1961). Exchanging Verona for New York and pitting the Puerto Rican Sharks against the local firm, the Jets, the play and film contain some of the most incredible numbers ever sang and danced to. The original play won awards and broke box-office records. The film West Side Story (1961) deservedly won many Oscars. It is considered almost a perfect musical. How could it be improved?
West Side Story (2021) cannot possibly be classed as better than the original because Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurent, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, plus their incredible team, had already done all of the challenging work crafting the production. But with this new version Steven Spielberg has once again proved he is one of the great genre directors. Assembling an ultra-talented team including Josh Peck as choreographer, Tony Kushner as screenwriter, Janusz Kaminski as cinematographer and an effervescently wonderful cast.
Everything about the film screams colour, energy and movement. The dancing and editing and swinging beats take you on a breathless journey through the romance and street war. Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria’s (Rachel Zegler) love story is bounced effortlessly between the expertly devised gang battles. Moreover, West Side Story (2021) keeps all the memorably catchy songs such as: Maria, Tonight, America, Cool, and Somewhere, capturing the heart and imagination in equal measure. If there is a better directed, choreographed and edited set-piece all year in the Gee, Officer Krupke number then I haven’t seen it.
The cast are uniformly excellent with Ansel Elgort, while lacking slightly in the vocal department, more than making up for it with his magnetic screen presence. Rachel Zegler is charming if bland as Maria, but Ariana DeBose absolutely steals the scenes with her all-round performance as fiery Anita. The cast all deliver Tony Kushner’s excellent dialogue and the iconic songs with aplomb. Lastly, West Side Story (2021) is an absolute tour-de-force as cinematic entertainment. However, there is a sense that it is a missed opportunity for Steven Spielberg and his team to perhaps update the themes for the modern day. Kushner’s script hints at some analysis of racism that ultimately only scratches the surface. Spielberg is satisfied emulating a classic adaptation of a classic play, remaining trapped in a shiny post-modern time-warp full to the brim with powerful nostalgia.
Cast: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey
Music by: Björk
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Edited by: François Gédigier, Molly Marlene Stensgård
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Rather incredibly, until very recently, I had never seen DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). However, it has quickly gone up the ranks in my mind as one of the best musical films I have ever seen. Having given it a lot of thought, it was difficult to place my review of Lars Von Trier’s eccentric, magical and moving tragedy. I could have reviewed it as a cult or under-rated classic film, but it was too high profile really; AND it won the Palm D’Or at Cannes. Thus, I decided, because it is such a compelling story and told in a magnetically creative style it definitely qualifies as a classic film.
Set in Washington State, circa 1964, the story centres on the life of Selena Ježková (Bjork), a Czech immigrant, who works in a factory supporting herself and her teenage son, Jean. She is good friends with co-worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), and has a good relationship with her landlord, a police officer called Bill (David Morse), and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour). Selena is also romantically pursued by Jeff (Peter Stormare). Yet despite him being a pleasant and easy-going guy she prefers to be just friends. Selena is an admirable character because she works round-the-clock with at least two jobs, striving to make ends meet. But she also hides a secret. She is, in fact, going blind. Kathy helps cover for her where she can at the factory, however, the condition is irreversible. Selena is extraordinarily brave, but foolhardy too. Her condition puts herself and factory productivity at risk. Yet, this is merely a suggestion of the drama and tragedy which later befalls her. Because someone close to her will betray a trust, setting in motion a series of extremely depressing eventualities.
In order to escape the trials of her everyday existence, Selena often daydreams in song and dance form. These fantasies are further contextualised by Selena and Kathy taking part in a town production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, plus their visits to the cinema to watch Hollywood musicals. Von Trier is careful though to establish verisimilitude and plausible reality prior to the first musical number. Even so, it is initially extremely jarring when the song begins. Nonetheless, the power of surprise provides an electrical surge to the narrative and Selena’s characterisation. The first number set in the factory finds the mechanical sounds of the machinery providing a metronomic rhythm to the song and dance routine. Furthermore, songs such as, I’ve Seen It All (with the sequence set on a locomotive), and Smith and Wesson link Selena’s character to metal, machines and American industrialisation. Essentially, Selena’s experiences as a working class immigrant find her attempting to escape via song, but being trapped by American machines and later on in the film, their justice system too.
Filmed on digital cameras the presentation is arguably inspired somewhat by Von Trier’s established Dogme 95 style. In terms of content, DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), combines elements of melodrama and film noir reminiscent of films by Douglas Sirk. Such thematic and visual cues are then filtered through a meta-textual inversion of the Hollywood musical. While the classical musical is all about joy, love, family, companionship, song and performance, Von Trier effectively represents these genre tropes, but twists them into calamitous trials and tribulations for Selena. I for one felt such pain, regret and sympathy for her character. Indeed, Bjork, who had never acted before and has rarely acted since, gives an incredibly moving and soulful performance as the dedicated mother only trying to do her best for her son. Similarly, the songs she co-wrote with Mark Bell, Sjón Sigurdsson and Lars von Trier, sparkle and spike and tug at the heartstrings passionately.
Lars Von Trier is a divisive filmmaker and personality. He has always sailed close to the wind in regard to his challenging filmmaking style and content, as well as causing dissension over the years with his perceived outrageous comments. Moreover, Bjork herself spoke openly about a “Danish filmmaker” who oppressed and harassed her persistently on set. One must deduce that this indeed was Von Trier, thus I must respect and sympathise with the anguish she felt while filming, DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). Lastly, reviews of the film at the time were equally dichotomous. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian dubbed it the: “most shallow and crudely manipulative film of 2000. . . and one of the worst films, one of the worst artworks and perhaps one of the worst things in the history of the world.” Yet, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated: “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Personally, I am with Roger Ebert, as I found the film to be one of Lars Von Trier’s most emotionally moving, stylistically daring and human dramas.
Produced by: Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tom Hooper
Written by: Lee Hall and Tom Hooper – Based on the stage musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot.
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason DeRulo, Laurie Davidson, Ray Winstone, Taylor Swift, etc.
Music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS*
I think it’s easy to be overtly negative and nasty in reviews, and that is fine in general, as long as you can justify it. What I have found though is there seems to have been an unhealthy pile-on this Christmas by critics in regard to the film Cats (2019). One could even interpret some reactions to the film as hysterical and unfair bullying. I, in no way have any reason to defend wealthy people such as Andrew Lloyd Webber or the director Tom Hooper. But, this review asks the question: is Cats (2019) a really bad film? The answer in short is: no! It’s just not a particularly good one.
My wife loves musicals and was a fan of the original show. Personally, I don’t like cats, nor musicals generally (there are exceptions); and did not know the original stage production either. So, my expectations were pretty low for the film. What I did know is the original musical stage production was one of the longest running musicals in the West End. Plus, it made grossed over £32 billion in various productions across the world. Clearly a film production would make commercial sense and with acclaimed director, Tom Hooper, at the helm — what could go wrong?
Firstly, it’s an obvious thing to say that stage and screen productions generally work very differently. The original Cats was based on the poems of T.S. Eliot and was adapted organically in the 1970s by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Richard Stilgoe and Trevor Nunn. It was released in 1981 and became a phenomenal success. The narrative on stage and screen concerns a tribe of cats, inhabiting the streets, shops, theatres and homes of London, called the ‘Jellicle Cats’. Each year there is a competition as to who will be given a new life and reach the Heaviside Layer. Imaginatively named characters such as: Rum Tum Tugger (Jason DeRulo), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) and many more litter the screen. Several of these characters compete via song and dance routines, but obstacles are introduced by the nasty nemesis, Macavity (Idris Elba).
As I did not know the original adaptation, I have to say that given the lack of a proper narrative, I am surprised the show took off in the first place. This is clearly a testament to the love felt for the many powerful songs in the show, notably the brilliant ‘Memory’. The film itself is essentially a series of musical set-pieces with a very thin narrative and thematic thread throughout. The rules of the world and mythology are not very well established by Lee Hall and Tom Hooper’s screenplay. In fact, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of an opening introduction to the world. So, for me, the film fails to establish believable unbelievability and ease you into the fantasy elements properly. Basically, if you know the original production it is likely you will really enjoy the film. However, I felt it was creatively hamstrung from the start.
Overall, much of Tom Hooper’s rendition of Cats (2019) feels rushed in terms of the CGI, the editing, pacing and general flow of the action and events. The first forty minutes sees a flurry of songs from various characters and this left me dizzy. However, there are some excellent set-pieces, rousing compositions, flashy choreography and impactful singing performances in here. Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and Idris Elba I felt were excellent. The rest of the cast, performers and production team also commit wholeheartedly to the project too. They cannot be faulted for certain creative decisions made at studio level. Indeed, whose idea was it to even release the film at Christmas when the Star Wars franchise is likely to defeat all cinema competition.
Maybe the film could have worked better as a lower budgeted, intimate and more stripped-down production. Moreover, while they attempted to include narrative exposition via the character of Francesca Hayward’s innocent stray, Victoria, the film still felt bereft of story. But, as it’s based on a set of poems, this is case with the original show too. Lastly, while Cats (2019) valiantly attempts to deliver a fun, humorous, emotional, energetic and fresh take on thestage show, it does fall short in many places. However, given the catastrophic reviews online and in the media in general, I have to say that it is genuinely enjoyable in places and not as bad as it’s being made out to be. It is still shocking though that such experienced producers and filmmakers would release what appears to be a dog rough work-in-progress product. It just goes to show that however talented you may be, no one is purr-fect!
Developed by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail – based on Fosse by Sam Wasson
Executive Producers: Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, Joel Fields, Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Stelzner, Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams
Producers: Erica Kay, Kate Sullivan, Brad Carpenter
Directors: Thomas Kail, Adam Bernstein, Jessica Yu, Minkie Spiroetc.
Writers: Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, Deborah Cahn, Tracey Scott Wilson, Charlotte Stouldt, Ike Holter, Joel Fields
Main Cast: Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Norbert Leo Butz, Margaret Qualley, Nate Corddry, Paul Reiser, Jake Lacy, Susan Misner, Peter Scolari, Kelli Barrett, Evan Handler and many more.
Original Network: FX – UK Network: BBC
No. of Episodes: 8
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I’m not a massive fan of musical shows or films as a genre. However, when the subject material or narrative connects with me, or the craft of song and dance transcends the form I will enjoy them. Thus, musicals I have seen and enjoyed on stage in the last few years include the brilliant Gypsy, Funny Girl, and Company. On the other hand, I could not stand Hamilton, despite the incredible talent involved in the production. Ironically, Hamilton director, Thomas Kail, is a major driving force behind this adaptation of Sam Wasson’s book about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon.
On the cinema screen the likes of: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singing in the Rain (1952),Grease (1978), Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), are just a few great examples of the genre I liked. But, the best and most exceptional musical I have seen in terms of form, style and subject matter is the Bob Fosse directed, Cabaret (1972). It’s not just a great musical, but it’s also a incredible piece of cinema. It oozes dark class in the musical set-pieces, ambiguous and fractured characterisation, sleazy sexuality and the thematic political subtext of pre-World War II Germany.
The making ofCabaret (1972) is one of the many creative events featured in Fosse/Verdon (2019). As the title suggests, it is an extensive biographical television drama about legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and the genius dancer, Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Both their artistic and personal lives were entwined from the time they met on the Broadway musical Damn Yankees in 1955, to the moment of his death in 1987.
If you’re interested in musicals and the work of Fosse and Verdon then you will absolutely love this warts and all biopic. We get extensive rehearsal, on stage, on screen and edit room scenes showing Fosse and Verdon’s creative process. Songs and dance numbers from Cabaret, Sweet Charity, All That Jazz, Pippin, Chicago and many more, feature heavily in the play and fantastic soundtrack. Further, both Fosse and Verdon, were dancers from a very young age and we therefore get scenes from their formative years paying their dues in dives and flop-houses.
We also get the heavy drama of Fosse and Verdon’s marriage battles. The former being a pill-popping workaholic and womaniser was the biggest issue in their relationship. His constant affairs and narcissistic tantrums took their toll eventually. Indeed, Fosse, while an amazing creative force, is quite despicable in his lecherous use of the casting couch and exploitation of his position and power. Perhaps, even more could have been done to critique his negative acts, especially in light of the #MeToo gender issues relevant today. However, there is no aggressive damnation of his actions, but rather agnostic reflection and acceptance that this was prevalent masculine behaviour for the era.
Sam Rockwell as Fosse is outstanding. He conveys the sadness of a junkie, haunted by a dysfunctional and abusive childhood. Yet, where his work is concerned his energy and obsession is non-stop and formidable. This, in no small part, is down to his constant amphetamine abuse; something which would lead to mental and physical health issues. Similarly, Michelle Williams is incredible as Gwen Verdon. She inhabits this classy performer with an energy and drive, but also a fighting spirit when clashing with Fosse creatively and matrimonially. She is more his match than his muse though. Indeed, Verdon, is his equal and deserves to share many of his plaudits and awards. They ultimately would push each other to greater heights and achievements.
The supporting cast, including the magnetic Margaret Qualley as dancer, Anne Reiking, and Norbert Leo Butz portraying writer, Paddy Chayefsky are excellent. Also, the talent and look of the era is convincingly evoked on and off the stage. The cavalcade of dance numbers are superbly mounted and the editing perfectly reflects the fractured nature of the characters’ show business lives. Lastly, the jigsaw structure, which zigs and zags from the characters’ past to Fosse’s final days, charting triumph and adversity, complements the complexity of the characters.
Thus, overall, this works as an honest analysis of a flawed genius and his equally talented dance and life partner. It is highly recommended for those drawn to the darker side of creative artistry and personal relationships. But the question remains: should the work of Fosse be re-evaluated, especially in light of his extremely sexual and sexist behaviour? Is there a statute of limitation for genius and all that jazz? The Primetime Emmy awards panel do not seem concerned given Fosse/Verdon (2019) has received seven major nominations at time of writing. All of which it stands a great chance of winning!
CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #6 – ‘TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME’ – CABARET (1972)
Directed by: Bob Fosse
Produced by: Cy Feuer
Screenplay by Jay Allen – Based on Cabaret by Joe Masteroff
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson
Songs: John Kander & Fred Ebb (Lyrics) – Score: Ralph Burns
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
**CONTAINS PLOT AND THEME SPOILERS**
Cabaret (1972) was that strange thing: a dark, satirical, sexual, explicit and cynical musical. I only actually watched it for the first time last year and thought it was a true classic; and I don’t usually enjoy musicals as a rule. Not only is the direction, writing, choreography and performance brilliant but from a thematic perspective it took risks in regard to gender and sexual representations. Moreover, the historical themes are very compelling too. The film would garner many Oscars and was a critical and commercial smash, sending Liza Minnelli to super-stardom at the same time.
Set in Berlin, the narrative concerns a variety of characters that appear at, or attend the infamous Kit Kat Club. Episodic in structure the main stories focus on the loves and losses of the likes of singer Sally Bowles (Minnelli), writer, Brian Roberts (Michael York) and German playboy, Baron Max Von Heune (Helmut Griem). Interspersed within the drama are the songs from the stage of the Kit Kat Club, introduced by the seedy Master of Ceremonies, portrayed by Joel Grey. Furthermore, the film charts the movement from the bohemian freedom of the Weimar Republic to the threat of the looming National Socialist Party as it insidiously bleeds into the German political landscape.
This change is seen to chilling effect in the only song featured outside the club, namely, ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’. In this classic scene we begin innocently enough with the angelic singing of a teenage boy. As he continues to sing we cut to the crowd listening intently. Then the camera pans down and it’s revealed the boy is a member of the Hitler Youth. Suddenly, the portentous horror of the situation is all too apparent and the song becomes an unsettling reminder of grim future events. As members of the crowd join in fervently with the song, we know, we just know it’s the end of innocence for the German people and the world.
In light of the FOURTEEN Oscar nominations from the Academy who am I to go against the tide of musical loveliness that is La La Land. Indeed, while I dislike all kinds of award ceremonies per se it does deserve most of the accolades coming its way. Because as the Trump puppet rears his huge, ugly head in the United States and Brexit looms large in the UK we all need something feel-good and nostalgic to lift us; especially amidst the bitter cold of winter.
Damian Chazelle, who wrote and directed the exceptional drama Whiplash (2014), has sculpted a sunny post-modern musical which soars throughout paying tribute to both Los Angeles and Hollywood. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as an uncompromising jazz pianist and Emma Stone as a sensitive, budding actress who meet in a contemporary yet somehow old-fashioned vision of LA; where magic and love are in the air and the potentialities of dreams are a palpable force.
Stone and Gosling are a stunning couple and while Chazelle’s leads may not have the strongest voices they serve the songs exceptionally well with an ordinary wonder. The chemistry between the two sparkles as the story entwines their characters within a “follow your dream” narrative. Arguably there could’ve been slightly more differences between the two than the “I hate jazz” tension; but as in the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), Stone and Gosling sail through the film with confidence and profound likeability.
Chazelle throws everything at the story employing jazz, 80s pop, old band numbers, R and B, and ballads. Moreover, all manner of parody, pastiche and cinematic devices are employed to echo the classic Hollywood musicals of yesteryear; the formidable work of Jacques Demy; plus the more modern pop promos of recent times. The opening Another Day of Sun traffic sequence is a real showstopper as Fame-like dancing and singing on motors in an LA highway jam brilliantly establishes the hyper-real and fantastical elements to come.
It seems obvious to say that the music in La La Land is to the fore, but Chazelle and the ultra-talented composer Justin Hurwitz commit a verve and soul to the songs and direction. Clearly the characters and lyrics reflect their own personal emotions, dreams and desire to escape everyday existence. While much of the film skims a stylish surface of colour and verve, numbers such as City of Stars and The Fools Who Dream really touch the heartstrings and draw out the internal emotions of the characters.
It’s hard to criticize such a funny, feel-good movie and as a musical it is probably a masterpiece, however, while the love story served the musical structure really well, I felt that, compared to say Funny Girl (1968), Grease (1977) and Half-A-Sixpence (1967) it arguably lacked a bit of dramatic tension. Indeed, the break-up itself was under-baked and latterly covered by a have-your-cake-and-eat-it “what could have been” fantasy flashback. Yet, this is a minor critique of an incredibly well realised escapist joy.
So, roll on the Oscars where the film will almost certainly win best film and direction, plus accolades, no doubt, for the musical and technical achievements. The wonderful Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are certain to be in the fray too. However, while I have seen other more dramatically impactful films such as: Arrival (2016), Manchester by the Sea (2016) and Silence (2016) (not even nominated!!), this remains one terrific musical that will lift the spirits even on the darkest day.
March is a looonnngggg old month and I have watched a shedload of shows and films; so it’s a quick wash and go through my monthly review round up. As usual marks are out of 11 – do enjoy!
**DEFINITELY MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
FILMS OF THE MONTH!
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) – CINEMA
If you’d like a cinema alternative from the current superhero hype then try out neat suspense thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane. It was lean, mean, well-acted and full of fun twists; proving good writing will often be more entertaining than big-budgeted blockbusters. Trapped heroine Mary Elizabeth Winstead is both imprisoned in a bunker by sinister John Goodman and freakish occurrences going on outside and must use her wits to escape. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff throughout in a thrilling sidequel to over-rated “found footage” monster movie Cloverfield (2008). (Mark: 8 out of 11)
BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) – CINEMA
A tremendous genre-blend of horror and Western, this debut feature from S. Craig Zahler is destined to be a cult classic. We’re in The Searchers meets Hills Have Eyes territory as Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson. Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins track down townsfolk kidnapped by savage cannibal natives. Not for the faint-hearted, I loved the witty dialogue exchanges, sunburnt vistas and sudden smashes of bloody violence. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
HAIL CAESAR (2016) – CINEMA
If you love the Coen Brothers and also like films that are about people making and watching movies, then Hail Caesar is a delight. It’s a feel-good nostalgic tribute to Hollywood, both funny and charming. It was like watching a cinema soufflé with extra icing sugar on top as the wonderful cast and Hollywood pastiches are faultless. Alden Ehrenreich is superb as the singing cowboy turned unlikely thespian and Josh Brolin knits the “day in the life” structure perfectly as workaholic studio boss. It’s pretty flimsy in terms of a plot but works wonderfully as a series of vignettes from the era, along with mild religious and political satire too. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
SUPER (2010) – NETFLIX
“Shut up Crime!” yells Frank Darbo: Rainn Wilson’s on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown loser, as he is visited by God and told he is the “chosen one”. Thus, begins his transformation into the Crimson Bolt; a human superhero/vigilante with no powers, charging to take down Kevin Bacon’s slimy drug dealing scumbag who has also stolen Frank’s wife. This is a hilariously dark and comedic anti-super-hero film very much in the Kick-Ass territory but somehow grittier and more bizarre. Wilson channels his Dwight Shrute persona perfectly and Ellen Page offers spunky support as his sidekick Boltie. James Gunn writes and directs with off-kilter joy and who’d believe he’d go onto direct the far more commercially successful Guardians of the Galaxy (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
THEY LIVE (1989) – AMAZON PRIME
They Live is a classic underrated film from the late 80s and still retains its power as a social sci-fi satire. Hard-done-by drifter Roddy Piper finds himself amidst aliens who have infiltrated Earth and now subliminally control human population through the media and advertising. NOT LIKE REAL LIFE THEN! John Carpenter’s film is both clever and dumb as Piper and a band of rebels fight back against the extra-terrestrial horde. Some plot blips aside this is cracking entertainment and contains some great one-liners and fight scenes. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
WORTH A WATCH OR RE-WATCH
AGE OF ADALINE (2015) – NOW TV
Kind of a female Benjamin Button movie as Blake Lively shines as Adaline in a heart-warming romantic drama with the excellent Harrison Ford providing fine support. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
ALAN PARTRIDGE’S MIDMORNING MATTERS (2016) – NOW TV
Steve Coogan is back on the airwaves with his usual verbal and physical buffoonery. A succession of hilarious guest cameos from the likes of Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barrett make this comedy gold. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
CROOKED MAN: TOMMY TIERNAN (2010) – NETFLIX
This is incredible stand-up comedy from the Irish cyclone that is Tommy Tiernan. The controversial comedian rips through 90 minutes of stunning observations and routines which are replete with lyrical and bestial beauty. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
DOWNFALL (2004) – NETFLIX
I’ve seen this wonderful rendition of Hitler’s final days before but it retains its incredible power and tragedy. Bruno Ganz is monstrously brilliant as the Fuhrer whose murderous empire crumbles around him. The Germans are shown to be dirty rats leaving a sinking ship and there are so many sad scenes throughout; a tough yet enriching experience. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014) – NETFLIX
This brainless action film shows Stallone, Snipes, Statham, Schwarzenegger etc. taking on Mel Gibson’s nefarious arms dealer; and while it’s ridiculous and over-the-top – as cinematic lobotomies go – it’s not too bad. (Mark: 5.5 out of 11)
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014) – NOW TV
Ridley Scott remakes Gladiator (2000) again but this time in Egypt as Christian Bale’s Moses goes up against Joel Edgerton’s nefarious Pharaoh. Plagues, pestilence, visions of God and the parting of the seas are all present and correct in a pretty entertaining Biblical epic. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
GOOD KILL (2014) – NETFLIX
Excellent character drama focussing on a falling-apart Drone pilot portrayed with burnt-out aplomb by Ethan Hawke. It’s a compelling analysis of U.S. foreign policy as they attack various targets in the Middle East and while sympathising with the dehumanisation of the “pilots” it also critiques the almost cowardly destruction of life from a distance. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
THE GRANDMASTER (2013) – NETFLIX
Exquisitely shot martial art-house film from Wong Kar-Wai, which pays tribute to Chinese cultural icon Ip Man portrayed with much class by Tony Leung. The Donnie Yen Ip Man films are more accessible than the poetic storytelling offered here but this still packs a delectable punch. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
I AM LOVE (2009) – NETFLIX
Tilda Swinton owns the screen in this melodrama which follows the trials and tribulations of a rich Italian family. Not much occurs but the Italian scenery is breath-taking and while narratively slow, Swinton’s performance and the final act tragedies make it worth the journey. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
THE JINX (2015) – NOW TV
Now, this documentary was something else. A filmmaker named Andrew Jareki made an okay feature film called All Good Things (2010) starring Ryan Gosling. It charted events concerning eccentric multi-millionaire Robert Durst and the disappearance of his wife. Flash forward a few years and Durst asked Jarieki if he’d like to interview him about his situation and what he perceived was a “witch-hunt”. What follows is an amazing documentary featuring Durst and the events around his wife and TWO other people he is suspected of murdering. There’s something not quite right about Durst as the chilling denouement to the compelling docu-series reveals. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
LIFE ON MARS – SEASON 2 (2007) – NETFLIX
Second season of the “time-travel” 70s cop show picks where the first left off with John Simms’ Sam Tyler battling baddies and once again clashing with his boss, the mud-mouthed-maverick Gene Hunt (Philip Glennister). Once again this drama has great humour and plot twists amidst the mind-bending theatrics and Northern seventies era.(Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE NIGHT MANAGER (2016) – BBC IPLAYER
Beautiful women, locations, undercover spies and nefarious bad guys feature in this James Bondesque John Le Carre literary adaptation. The cast including: Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie are excellent and the story had me mesmerised right up until the explosive though generically unsatisfying ending. Still, it was overall great quality Sunday evening eye-candy though.(Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE PROGRAM (2015) – SKY MOVIES
This intriguing biopic about cyclist Lance Armstrong follows his battle against cancer to Tour de France winner to disgraced drug cheat. It’s a real eye-opener into the process of the win-at-all-costs Armstrong and his obsessive pursuit of victory. Ben Foster excels in the lead and while the dramatics could have been beefed up toward the conclusion it’s still a fascinating story. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
RED TAILS (2012) – NETFLIX
This is a worthy yet lightweight wartime drama focussing on the Tuskegee Airmen and their aerial dog-fighting prowess that was demonstrated so superbly in WWII. The battle scenes are impressive but the characters felt underwritten and the film lacked impact for such an interesting subject. (Mark: 5 out of 11)
SPRING (2014) – NETFLIX
Intriguing low-budget horror-romance film which moves VERY slowly but is punctuated with some fine gore and body horror effects. The characters I could take or leave as anaemic American tourist, Evan, meets a mysterious young woman, Louise, on the streets on Italy. However, the filmmakers deserve acclaim for attempting to create something original in the horror genre. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
STAR TREK: GENERATIONS/ FIRST CONTACT/INSURRECTION (1994/96/98) – NETFLIX
Given myself and my filmmaking partner Gary are making a Star Trek “fan-boy” short film as our next production I decided to immerse myself in some Trek movies; and very good human and science fiction films they are too. Generations sees Kirk (Shatner) and Picard (Patrick Stewart) meet across the time-streams in a giddy mix of philosophy and temporal variance. In First Contact, Picard and crew fight the formidable Borg with the former flexing his action man muscles. Lastly, despite the title Insurrection slows the pace down as Picard falls in love while protecting a peace-loving community called the Ba’ha. All the films are well crafted with First Contact offering the greatest peril as collectively they offer some fine sci-fi concepts, character turns, humour and drama throughout.(Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
STILL LIFE (2013) – NETFLIX
Eddie Marsan is wonderful in this touchingly told story of a council worker who searches for family members of “clients” who’ve died alone. It moves slowly but with heart, purpose and pathos; offering an alternative to the overblown lobotomised big budget films at the multiplex. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
STRETCH (2014) – NOW TV
This is a flashy, style-over-substance-day-in-the-life-movie about a burnt out actor/chauffeur who must avoid criminals, cops and crazed clients while trying to stay sober. Patrick Wilson is watchable but I’d only recommend this if you are pissed or unconscious on a Friday night. (Mark: 5 out of 11)
AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE
SEVENTH SON (2014) – NOW TV
Jeff Bridges and the exquisite Julianne Moore take a pay-check but offer little else in this nonsensical fantasy witch-hunter yarn. Awful beyond words. (Mark: 2 out of 11)
THE WITCH (2016) – CINEMA
Be wary of The Witch. Its trailer suggested a scare-fest but it is in essence an overly talky art-house horror; heavy on religious symbolism and folklore. It is very well directed, designed and acted and the broadsheet critics will love it. However, there’s not enough gore, scares or actual story for my liking and at times I was bored as hell. It’s a damned shame as I like horror films and art-house cinema but The Witch just doesn’t make us care about the characters or story at all. (Mark: 3 out of 11)
“Hey – Paul! Do you want to see Book of Mormon? It’s a musical!”
“Oh – I can’t stand musicals! Apart from Grease maybe. Or a Sondheim one I can’t remember the name of.”
“But it’s made by the guys who did South Park!”
“Really? I love South Park. How much are tickets?”
So on a cheaper Wednesday matinee showing myself and a friend ventured to the Prince of Wales Theatre to see Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s wonderfully irreverent and offensive (depending on your point-of-view) musical The Book Of Mormon. And a great time was had by all. It was funny, energetic and warm and of course very rude but strangely uplifting and like all great art (high or low) it got me thinking about my own values and spirituality.
I have never been what you would call a religious person. I am not a believer or associate myself with a particular faith. In fact since I was young I always held a staunch antagonism toward doctrines which remove free-thinking in the individual from birth. Furthermore much of the world’s conflicts over history have been caused in the name of religion; that and greed and money and power.
Having said that over the years my approach to religion has matured and I have become less didactic in my thoughts. Because you know what: religion or faith can be a positive thing and give people a true set of values with which to live their life. It’s not God’s fault that human beings use his or her name to commit acts of war and spread intolerance. In fact, in recent times the move toward Atheistic and Scientific Fundamentalism (led by the Grand Wizard Richard Hawkins) itself has also caused intolerance to rear its ugly head too.
I prefer to believe in nothing; not a void as such but no particular deity or belief system. They provide great comfort for many but it’s not something I feel I need. I believe in freedom of choice and speech and the basic human principle of just be tolerant of, and good to others. Because as the song says: “Religion don’t kill people – humans do!” Of course I just made that lyric up for humorous effect and that is precisely what occurs in the wonderful, hilarious and uplifting theatrical musical Book of Mormon.
The backstory tells us of Joseph Smith who “found” the sacred eponymous text on the gold plates of Nephi. After which he gave birth to a new religion in 1830 which went viral, spreading quicker than a dancing cat video on YouTube. Flash forward loads of years and the Church of Latter Day Saints is one of the World’s largest cults; sorry, organised religions. And this is the starting point for the story.
Our two main protagonists are Elder Price (Billy Harrigan Tighe) — a handsome, young go-getter — and Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes) who is, of course, his nerdier, less confident and insecure counterpart. Cunningham is also a compulsive liar which gives the story an essential characteristic and running theme. Together they are sent from the Missionary Training Centre in Utah to of all places, Uganda to spread the word of Mormon. But Uganda is a godless place full of famine, disease and war and hardship so religion is a hard thing to see to those with no hope.
Humour is mined from the clashes between the two wildly different cultures as the songs compare the upbeat door-knocking optimism of the Mormons with the downtrodden, hungry, maggot-balled, AIDS-ridden, clitoris-castrated Africans; who are war-lorded over by hilariously named General Butt-Fucking Naked. As with South Park the writers use all manner of stereotypes with which to cram as many offensive jokes in as possible.
However, there is heart to the story too as it is revealed that Elder Cunningham has joined the Mormons to try and fit in and find his place in the world and most importantly: friends. He is particularly taken with the preening narcissistic Elder Price despite the latter’s obvious discouragement and dislike of Cunningham. It’s no surprise then that while Price is clearly the more talented “salesperson” yet it is Cunningham who becomes a hit with the natives. Having said that he does so having “made-up” loads of stories from the Book of Mormon incorporating tales from Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord Of The Rings. From his distortions from the text plus bravery in standing up to the General Cunningham becomes a beacon of hope in the village.
Stories and faith are at the core of the satire here as Book of Mormon both lampoons and deep-down admires the Missionaries. While what Elder Cunningham says seems completely stupid and ridiculous it gives the villagers hope and faith for the future. Overall, the word of Joseph Smith is arguably “fictional” yet the message is a positive one with togetherness being the way forward. The show asks us: if something gives hope in a hopeless world does it matter if it’s real or not?
I have no frame of reference with regard to musicals. The only one I’ve seen outside the movies was Fame – The Musical starring ‘H’ from Steps. But this was an absolute joy with an incredible cast and songs to boot. My personal favourites were: Two By Two, Making Thing’s Up Again and Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. The shifting of sets, movement and pace were fast yet controlled and the show was clearly the result of a culmination of an incredible amount of creativity, rehearsal and hard work. As a dynamite new season of South Park currently runs on Comedy Central – I can certainly say Matt Stone and Trey Parker have another work of genius to add to their incredibly offensive yet hilarious CV. Thank God, Allah, Ganesh, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Nephi, Joseph Smith et al for them I say!