Thursday, 30 August 2018

The League of Gentlemen Live Again! - Review

"You'll never leave!"
That is the inviting but threatening welcome that greets people when arriving in the town of Royston Vasey. Very much a local town for local people.
It would be fair to say that nearly 20 years on from when audiences first visited the town in 1999 for the BBC series, the creators have never really left the characters behind.
Individually the team have gone on to great success in their own rights; Mark Gatiss (Dr. Who, Sherlock), Jeremy Dyson (Ghost Stories) and Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton (Psychoville, Inside No. 9).
Yet in this culture of golden age thinking and nostalgia, with every other band from the Nineties regrouping and going on a cash-grabbing money making tour, the question arose; would we see the return of the League?
The answer was yes but as evidenced by the incredible three-part Christmas TV special, the reformation was not fuelled by a desire to line their pockets but a genuine love of the characters and need to continue their story in this modern era.
At a sold out SEC Armadillo in Glasgow, it was clear that the majority of the audience was made up of hardcore fans as evidenced by the "You're my wife now Dave!" t-shirts and people with sellotape strapped to their faces pinning back their noses.
Many of whom would take the time to pay a visit to the Local Shop where they could pick up some of Pauline's Pens or sample the Precious Things of the shop.
The show is very much a tale of two halves.
The first half features the team in their traditional tuxedos from when they first started performing on the comedy circuit and rattled through some of their most iconic, classic sketches at a breakneck pace including a game of "Go Johnny Go Go Go Go!"; Stella, Charlie and Tony playing Trivial Pursuit;
The skill of the trio is evident as they easily morph into the recognisable characters simply by altering their voice or mannerisms.
All this leads to a fantastic first act closer from Legs Akimbo Theatre Company as director/producer/writer/actor/choreographer Oli Plimsolls laments the lack of awards recognition given to his issue-based childrens educational theatre. Taking aim at all sorts of targets from the West End including a hilarious barb aimed at Stomp but simultaneously a thinly veiled dig at the lack of recognition that the League themselves received during their original TV run.
The second half is fully set within Royston Vasey and begins with a West End/Les Mis-style musical number between Tubbs and Edward (in full costume and make up) that continues on from the cliffhanger at the end of the Christmas special.
The audience roared with approval as all their favourite characters made their return including Les McQueen; Geoff, Mike and Brian; Herr Lipp; Papa Lazarou and even one character from beyond the grave.
It would be doing a disservice to those attending the tour to spoil the surprises in store during the second half which is all brand new material. For those unlucky to get tickets, you will just have to wait for the inevitable DVD that will hit shelves just in time for Christmas!
Despite working on different projects over the last ten years, the group haven't lost a step during their sabbatical as the comic timing between Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton is exceptional and the love and chemistry they share with each other is evident to the audience who gave the team a well-deserved standing ovation.
The League of Gentlemen Live Again! might be billed as a local show for local people but there truly is something for everyone on this celebratory tour that cements the League's position as the UK's greatest comedy troupe.

5 stars

Monday, 27 August 2018

BlacKKKlansman - Review

2018 is being widely viewed as a game-changing year in cinema. The #MeToo movement is starting to make changes behind the scenes in the industry; LGBTQ+ are beginning to experience more representation on the big screen (Call Me By Your Name, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Love Simon and Hearts Beat Loud); #52FilmsByWomen.
However when 2018 comes to a close, two of the most important films to be released this year will both feature "Black" in them.
Black Panther is the highest grossing film in the US, and second worldwide to Avengers Infinity War. It caused Hollywood to sit up and take notice that African-American audiences will come out in force to see strong, heroic black characters on the big screen. It represented a huge step forward.
Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman also features a strong, heroic black character but looks back at the past and to the future to show that not much has really changed and there is still a lot of work to do.
Based on one of those incredible true stories that sounds too crazy to be true, John David Washington (son of Denzel) stars as Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer who managed to become a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
A new recruit to the Colorado Springs police force in the early Seventies, the rookie takes a huge punt and calls up the local chapter of the KKK and establishes a rapport with them and gets invited to join.
Obviously he cannot attend himself so it becomes a joint operation with a white officer playing Stallworth while at the meetings. This responsibility falls to Philip "Flip" Zimmerman (the always excellent Adam Driver).
The investigation that follows is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.
The humour naturally comes from the juxtaposition of this intelligent, streetwise man taking the KKK for a ride as he worms his way into the Klan over the phone. Even getting to the man at the top of the chain David Duke (Topher Grace).
Given what transpired in the investigation, it is safe to say that the KKK do not come out of the film looking like the sharpest tools in the box as the two Ron Stallworths run rings around them. In fact, there is a certain trio that make the Nihlists from The Big Lebowski look like criminal masterminds.
However Lee never looks to dampen or diminish the threat, power and hate that made them so dangerous.
This is evident in several scenes; A crosscutting between a Black Student meeting where a lawyer talks about a horrific case and the initiation ceremony for new KKK members that ends with a party and watching Birth Of A Nation; the naive Stallworth stating that America would never elect a man like Duke to political office and the ending of the film which jumps forward to real life footage of the Charlottesville protests from last year that saw the death of a protester by white supremacists driving through people.
It was a stark reminder that the fight is not over and the war rages on. For despite it being a period piece, it feels fresh and startlingly relevant as many of the phrases and language used e.g. "America First" generated awkward laughter in the auditorium due to its prevalence in Trump's campaign.
BlacKKKlansman is easily Spike Lee's best and most important film since The 25th Hour and it is a welcome return to form for one of cinema's most important voices. So Do The Right Thing and watch it on the big screen ASAP.

4 stars

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Hearts Beat Loud - Review

You know that feeling when you hear a song on the radio, or Spotify. It starts off similar to hits you have heard many times over, before the chorus kicks in and suddenly becomes something truly special and before you know it, you are tapping your foot and it has wormed its way into your brain for all good.
Welcome to Hearts Beat Loud.
With a story about the owner of a failing record store who discovers a new lease of life through making music with his daughter, fans of cinema can see exactly where this film is going to go. One that will probably end with the band performing a show in order to save the store, where someone puts the show on Facebook live causing them to go viral, become a huge success and ensure the future of the store.
However, Hearts Beat Loud is not that film and it is all the better for it.
Nick Offerman plays Frank Fisher, owner of Red Hook Records in Brooklyn and father to Sam (Kiersey Clemons). The store is closing due to rent increases (which clearly don't affect his large Brooklyn loft) and he needs to reevaluate his future before Sam goes off to medical school in Los Angeles.
In the hands of another filmmaker, this would be Sam's story. A coming-of-age story in that final Summer before college where she finds love and music.
Instead, it is a two-hander, with both father and daughter facing some tough choices about their future. In fact, here it is the adult father figure who needs to grow up as opposed to his daughter.
They might be on different paths but the one thing they have in common is music.
One night after Frank pesters Sam into sacking off study for a "jam session", the two write a song eponymously called Hearts Beat Loud. A joyful, modern pop song that the audience witness in its full creation as layer upon layer is added in a sequence that is superbly edited.
Offerman, who is most famous for playing the grumpy Ron Swanson in Parks & Recreation, deftly balances the sad sack of a man who is failing at life but truly comes alive through music with an infectious, giddy enthusiasm. Plus it looks as though he plays all his own instruments!
He is perfectly matched by Kiersey Clemons as Sam who has a stunning voice and after a couple of small parts in the Flatliners remake and Bad Neighbours 2 should be destined for stardom after this.
There is great support from Toni Colette (continuing a banner 2018), Ted Danson and Sasha Lane (as Sam's lesbian girlfriend in a sub-plot that is admirably played straight and without any sense of sensationalism or shock. It is simply a relationship).
Just like a sports team is only as good as its players, a film about music is only as good as its songs. Luckily, Hearts Beat Loud is not a one-hit wonder but has several chart worthy songs penned by Keegan DeWitt and performed by the cast.
We Are Not A Band also sing a song called Everything Must Go but it would be more apt to say everyone must go and see this film. One that will fill your heart with joy and have audiences singing its praises out loud.

4 stars

First Reformed - Review

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing the incendiary Taxi Driver in 1976. 42 years later, Schrader has created another film just as provocative and combustible in First Reformed.
It is also features one of Ethan Hawke's finest performances as Reverend Toller.
Toller is a man who is seemingly on a path to self-destruction. One brought upon by a crisis in faith as he tries to balance the tightrope between hope and despair.
Put out to pasture at the First Reformed church, which acts more as a tourist trap and souvenir shop than a place for worship and congregation.
Without the ability to receive or give his own confession, he begins keeping a diary in which he pours his innermost thoughts as frequently as he pours whisky or the communion wine.
In his voiceover narration, expressing disillusionment and indifference of the world in which he resides, this is the most apparent reference to Taxi Driver and the idea that Toller is this generation's Travis Bickle.
The battle between hope and despair is highlighted in a young couple that come to Toller for advice. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the pregnant virginal presence, who offers hope for the world through new life. Her husband, Michael, is the despair. An environmental campaigner who wants Mary to have an abortion, believing it to be wrong to bring a baby into a world that is determined to destroy itself.
As he counsels the couple, the creeping dread and despair grows like a cancer as he learns more of Michael's research and impending actions. But there is a glimmer of hope in Mary, who Toller comes to believe that he can save. Similar to Bickle's relationship with Iris.
Yet Reverend Toller is the very embodiment of hypocrisy. He bemoans the church's lack of action in preserving the environment, God's creation. However despite various people including doctors telling him that he is very ill and must take better care of himself, Toller continues to drink to excess every night while writing his journal. His personal catharis.
Hawke excels in the role and brings a believable pain and anguish to the screen. Here is a man who was born into the church through his family but also was part of the military. This led to him losing his family when his son signed up for the army and was killed in combat. A man who knows nothing but the church but is no longer cut out for that life. A impossible mixture like oil and water. Or whisky and Pepto Bismol in one of the film's most striking images and the point of no return for the character.
This is all leading to the final sermon of Reverend Toller as the various plot threads slowly tie together into a climax that is one of the most shocking and memorable of recent years.
First Reformed is one of the year's best films and a return to form for one of cinema's most inflammatory filmmakers.

4 stars

Saturday, 11 August 2018

The Meg - Review

Imagine the scene. Richard Dreyfus, LL Cool J, Dr. Evil and Jason Statham sat around the table aboard the Orca.
Dreyfus tells them of a 25ft Great White he encountered off the coast of Cape Cod.
LL Cool J replies “I got that beat. Genetically enchanced super sharks
Dr. Evil gesticulating wildly: “Sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads
The Stath slams his fist down on the table. “Shut it you muppets” *points to himself* “Megalodon. Single handed”.
It might sound like one of the OTT boasts from Statham’s character in Spy but it is the streamlined plot description of The Meg.
Which is why it is so frustrating that the movie is such a toothless disappointment.
The megalodon-sized portion of the blame must be aimed squarely on the decision to change the production from a R-Rated tongue-in-cheek horror a la Piranha 3D, to a P3-13/12A action film. Removing all the potential gore and violence results in huge shark-bite sized chunks missing in the narrative.
It actually feels like two films stitched together. The first half is a story of redemption for Jason Statham’s deep sea rescue diver who is tasked with rescuing the crew of a brand new oceanic marine base of the coast of Shanghai.
It is only during the second half that we meet the eponymous Megalodon. Using the disaster movie formula, the audience have already been introduced to a veritable smorgasbord of shark bait in the form of stock stereotypes on board the base including level-headed boss, arrogant billionaire financier, geeky techies, potential love interest and cute/annoying child.
We all know that they are there to provide a tasty snack or three for the Meg, which is why it is disappointing that, spoilers ahead, so many of them survive until the final reel. Particularly as their characterisation is lost at sea.
There are too many periods of inactivity where we are left treading water when just like Jonas (and Dory) you need to "just keep swimming, just keep swimming". To paraphrase Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, "A movie, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark."
It also suffers from being mis-marketed with the majority of the trailers focusing on the potential carnage of the shark stalking the open waters and attacking a busy beach of swimmers but this actually only covers a very small percentage of the film.
At least the film does what The Grey could not and that is deliver on the promise of man vs beast and have The Stath face off against a giant shark. Unfortunately it is a case of too little too late and not enough to snatch victory from the Jaws of defeat.
Statham's charisma works overtime to keep the movie afloat but it is seriously lacking bite. It certainly isn’t Jaws. Hell, it isn’t even Jaws IV: The Revenge!
The Meg doesn’t so much jump the shark as bellyflop instead.

2 stars

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp - Review

When the original Ant-Man was released, it could be fair to say that some Marvel fans (this reviewer included) did not have high hopes following the departure of writer-director Edgar Wright.
It turned out however, that the finished film turned out to be a light, fluffy, bite-sized delight that was the perfect palette cleanser after the all-you-can-eat buffet that was Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Fast forward three years and seven films later and Ant-Man and the Wasp arrives, once again on the back of a super-sized Avengers main course. Will it be another fun-filled treat that will help lift the mood of Marvel fans following the events of Infinity War or is there another sting in the tale?
The sequel makes the wise move to distance itself from Infinity War in terms of tone but also in terms of timeline. Instead setting itself in the couple of weeks before Thanos's masterplan comes into effect.
Speaking of Thanos, any film following the biggest bad in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would have an impossible act to follow. That is why they make the smart move in that this film doesn't really have an out-and-out villain, despite what the trailers lead you to believe.
Instead, characters like the quantum phasing Ghost (Hannah John Kamen) and weapons dealer Sonny Birch (Walton Goggins) are more obstacles for the team to overcome in the main quest to bring the original Wasp back from the Quantum Realm.
The film begins with a flashback to 1987 when Hank and Janet go off on their ill-fated mission, saying goodbye to a young Hope. It is a nice scene that helps to develop the bond between mother and daughter and instantly increases the emotional investment.
It is also another opportunity for Marvel to give a pay raise to the team who de-age the actors in these movies because the work they do here on Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfieffer is breathtaking... that is up to the point when we meet her later in the film and you realise that she has hardly aged at all and clearly must be drinking from the same fountain of youth as co-star Paul Rudd.
Rudd once again has a writing credit on the screenplay, much like Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool, which means he has had a huge creative hand in developing the character into the likeable Everyman the audience wants to see win the day but at times is his own worst enemy. Particularly with his actions in Civil War having a dramatic impact on his life, his family and his relationship with Hope and Hank.
Rudd might still be the first name above the credits but he is not the only hero as this marks the first film in the MCU with a female hero in the title.
Evangeline Lilly grabs the brass ring with both hands and flies through the glass ceiling, paving the way for Captain Marvel to follow her.
Importantly the film reintroduces her with a solo action scene in which she defeats a group of armed goons singlehanded (without the need of a man to help her or bail her out of trouble).
Of course, the title suggests that this is the formation of a crime fighting duo and the two actors build on the chemistry from the original and it has developed into the best MCU partnership since Thor & Loki. Their constant verbal sparring (and flirtatious banter) is reminiscent of a 30s/40s screwball comedy.
One of the successes of Ant-Man was the uniqueness of the action set pieces that organically grew out of the hero's abilities in the suit and the gadgets and powers that came with it. Just like transforming from the size of an ant to a giant, this film expands on the visual flair of the fighting style to incorporate not only hand-to-hand combat but also now car chases and Innerspace-style journeys to the Quantum Realm.
It was a very self-contained story, similar in many respects to this year's Black Panther, but this could have major implications going forward for the MCU, particularly in the battle against Thanos, as we delve even deeper into the Quantum Realm and the effect and power it can provide those who interact with it.
So while it is very much the light comic relief when compared to the rest of the recent output (Thor Ragnarok aside), it is heartwarming to see it lean into it and embrace its role within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This reviewer found himself laughing out loud even before Birch asked Luis a question while under the effects of truth serum because you know what was coming. And it was glorious.
The jaw-dropping mid credit scene means that all bets are off as to the characters roles in Avengers 4 but it is safe to say that Ant-icipation levels are sky high now.

4 stars

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Hotel Transylvania 3 - Review

*Full disclaimer - I only went to see Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation because I needed something to pass the time before the Ant-Man double bill and the timings of Mission Impossible Fallout didn't work! I then spent the trailers Wikipedia-ing the first two films to remind myself just what happened*

Hotel Transylvania 3 is the third instalment of the animated (or should that be reanimated) franchise that just like a creature of the undead, refuses to die. No matter what the critics say.
It's like the people who produce films starring Adam Sandler and his cohorts Kevin James, David Spade, etc, etc have discovered that the only way to make them palatable these days is to restrict them to voice roles and market them to kids and it seems to be a lucrative pastime.
In British TV sitcom lore, it is known that when a programme has run out of ideas for their characters... they send them on holiday!
So the plot of the movie sees the staff of Hotel Transylvania head off for some R&R on a cruise from the Bermuda Triangle to the Lost City of Atlantis.
The problem is that this cruise ship is captained by Erica Van Helsing, the great-grand daughter of Abraham Van Helsing, who is determined to destroy all monsters and finish her family's work.
That is the plot but it is pretty irrelevant because it is merely an excuse for Dracula to fall in love with Erica and provide Sandler 90 minutes to do his "oogity boogity boo" child's voice that made him famous in the late Nineties.
Speaking of the Nineties, the Deus Ex Machina that ultimately saves the group from the Big Bad at the end is an annoyingly catchy floor filler that just, maybe just, be remembered by some of the parents in the audience but will certainly go over the heads of the kids.
Cruises are not for everyone. Some people find that the entertainment is dull or cheesy, that there is a sense of confinement and no escape and worst of all, you could spend the majority of your time feeling nauseous.
Sounds about right.

1 star