Saturday, 24 June 2017

Feature - Another Blockbuster Summer - Part 1

Does anyone know the way... There's got to be a way to Blockbuster!!! (The Sweet - Blockbuster, 1976)
Here's a quick lesson in etymology. The word 'blockbuster' was originally a militaristic term coined during the Second World War regarding any bomb powerful enough to obliterate an entire street (or block). Then in subsequent decades it was adopted by the American movie industry to describe films such as Gone With the Wind or Ben Hur - features that made a huge box office explosion, as it were.
It was the 1975 advent of Stephen Spielberg's Jaws, however, that popularised the term. To some extent it also redefined it. 'Blockbuster' now came to signify a big event-movie aimed at a mass market. Here's the interesting thing... Whereas blockbusters were originally defined as films that had made a lot of money, post-Jaws they became those that cost a lot to make, with the aim of earning a lot more. But as we now know, for every Captain America there's a Jupiter Ascending, or even a Gods of Egypt. And if you haven't heard of the latter two, there's a simple reason. Yes - there now ironically exists such a thing as the 'blockbuster flop'. (Think of it in terms of a huge entertainment bomb that failed to explode.)
Jaws set a precedent in US cinema - one reinforced by further early Spielberg works and by George Lucas' original Star Wars films - of big-budget crowd-pleasers with vast marketing campaigns, which acted as studio mid-year centerpieces. Yes - the 'summer blockbuster' rapidly became a thing, along with a resultant sea of merchandising. By the '80s (and it's been the same ever since) a clutch of lavishly-produced American films fill up UK cinema screens, as studios vie to produce that year's definitive summer hit. No longer is there a single Jaws-type one-off that routs the competition. Now you get a good half-dozen-plus movies jostling for screen space, with several generally elbowing their way to predominance. 
More than that, the blockbuster phenomenon has spilled over, so that the entire calendar year is marked out in great splashy Hollywood spectacles. Christmas, Easter, Labor Day, Thanksgiving - all the big US holidays are accompanied by huge blockbuster openings, to the extent that studios have to negotiate so that they're not pitting their big titles against each other on the same initial weekend. 

But set that aside and just focus on summer 2017. In your local multiplex right now Wonder Woman is still cutting down competitors with her broadsword several weeks after release. Meanwhile franchise juggernauts Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean are both successfully fighting their ground (or sea areas), with Tom Cruise's resurrection of The Mummy likely to be prematurely re-tombed as a result. Then July will chuck Despicable Me 3, Cars 3, Spiderman: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes into the colourful melee. 
Now I'm no grump when it comes to flashy effects-heavy entertainment. I mean my tickets are as good as printed for both Peter Parker and those battling apes. And if you check back through my recent reviews you'll see how much I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts, Doctor Strange and Rogue One. I like event movies. But, I'm also irritated and saddened by a variety of aspects of blockbuster culture. Sufficiently irritated and saddened to write a whole follow-up blog entry about it. It's going to take that much space.
Suffice to say for now that innovations entertainment can be as double-edged in entertainment as in the rest of life. And while big, loud computer-generated mayhem can enliven a muggy Saturday afternoon, it's surely not everything that cinema was meant to be.

But I'll get back to that later...

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Film Review - My Cousin Rachel (12A)

She has done for me at last - Rachel, my torment.
Such are the words written to Philip, the hapless hero of this story, by the older male cousin who raised him into adulthood. Philip's cousin Ambrose has travelled to Italy from England on his doctor's advice, where he fell in love with and married his mysterious cousin Rachel. In the final correspondence of his life, however, he claims she is trying to kill him. The delusion of a dying man, or a terrifying reality? Philip has to decide, when Ambrose's widow arrives on the Cornish coast, desirous to meet her younger relative.
My Cousin Rachel is a lesser-known novel by Daphne du Maurier, best remembered for her mystery romances Rebecca and Jamaica Inn and short stories Don't Look Now and The Birds. A previous version of the film was released in 1952 - and no, I hadn't heard of it, despite its starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland as the eponymous Rachel. 
This time around the role is taken on - superbly so - by the character's namesake Rachel Weisz. The Rachel of the film is demure and flirtatious by turns - socially and sexually liberated by the standards of her day. Either she's a grieving widow or she's playing the part flawlessly, but whatever the truth she's also alluring enough to draw in both the audience and callow young Philip. The latter's initial hostility towards his possibly murderous cousin gives way inevitably to a whole other kind of feeling. Weisz's role demands sustained ambiguity and she plays it to a tee.
Meanwhile Philip, played by Sam Claflin (check my recent review of Their Finest), is headstrong and immature. He's still very much a boy despite his adult appearance, one who struggles not to be submerged in the emotional wave brought by his older cousin. He is backed up by Game of Thrones' ever-steady Iain Glen, the wary godfather who counsels caution, and by Holliday Granger as Glen's daughter, the sweet, patient girl with whom Philip should be in love. (How often is life that simple?)
The whole film has a strong Gothic feel to it - beautifully shot and rich in 19th century period detail. This is one good-looking feature. If it begins with bright Cornish vistas, it gradually descends into candlelit murk as doubt and paranoia start to grip. The camerawork is beautifully judged, particularly when Philip's hold on reality starts to slip. If there's one flaw, it's that director Roger Michell is too much in love with the world he's creating (or with Rachel), at the expense of the story's pacing. The movie could pick up its heels at points, like one of the many horses seen galloping along the Cornish cliffs. Maybe I'm too much in love with the concise storytelling of last month's Lady Macbeth, complete with its own femme fatale.
The movie is still largely a success, however, due in no small part to Weisz. You're likely to be swept along by her spirited independence, willing her to be better than portrayed in those early letters, but suffering the same confusion as poor Philip. If you're a fan of the enigmatic, you're going to love cousin Rachel.
Ed's Verdict: Atmospheric film-making with a stately pace and an inscrutable central performance. Rachel rocks Rachel 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Theatre Preview - The Ladykillers

Nobody hurts Mrs Lopsided.
Newsflash - from 5th to 15th July members of Tower Theatre Company will be performing Graham Linehan's adaptation of The Ladykillers at the Gatehouse Theatre, Highgate, London. Hopefully it will be wildly funny and entertaining. That's for others to say, not me - 'cos I'm in it. So rather than discuss the prospective merits of the Tower version, let me provide you with a brief overview of Ladykilling history. 
The original film version of The Ladykillers was produced by Ealing Studios in 1955, the last of the classic 'Ealing Comedies'. Ever since my first viewing it's featured on my Desert Island Films list - one of the eight I'd take with me if I were marooned in the Tropics with a Blu-ray and a decent solar-powered surround sound system. Why do I love this quaint British comedy so much? Well largely because its quaintness belies something dark and deliciously subversive. 
This quintessentially English tale was written by the American William Rose and directed by America-born Alexander Mackendrick, two possible reasons why it transcends its old-fashioned North London trappings to become something very different. The story is of five bank robbers planning a heist while masquerading as a musical quintet, having rented rooms from ostensibly sweet and fragile widow Mrs Wilberforce. But Mrs W proves much more doughty than the thieves anticipate, resulting in all manner of grim consequences. 
The film's delights are plentiful - the eccentricity of Mrs Wilberforce's wonky dwelling, the contrast between her chintzy world and the ultra-shadowy one of the crooks, the physical comedy sparked by her bad-natured parrot General Gordon. Most memorable, however, are the gleeful characterisations of the gang and their elderly nemesis. The villains are a fabulous range of archetypes - borderline-insane mastermind, gentleman criminal, dim-witted muscleman, cocky spiv and sinister assassin (played by notables including Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom). They're also mis-matched and ludicrously incompetent, while still managing to be deeply threatening - a tribute to performance and murky cinematography. 

As for the darling old lady - in reality she's hard-as-nails spirit-of-the-British-Empire, to the point of parody. One scene that doesn't make it to the stage adap has her interfering in a dispute between tradesmen, inadvertently ending several careers as the cons look on aghast. There's something quietly formidable about 'Mrs Lopsided'.
The Ladykillers is a beautiful oddity of a film, one which captured the imaginations of the Coen Brothers, whose remake came out in 2005. Their version is a curio all its own - transferring the story to America's Deep South and casting Tom Hanks as the gang's leader. Katie Jones' sweet old lady from the original becomes a hectoring church-woman played by Irma P Hall. It's that rarity in the Coens' canon - a semi-failure, albeit an interesting one. Something crucial seems lost in translation. Much of the original film's joy existed in its post-War English setting, with all aspects of story and background deeply familiar to the audience, but given a subtly demented twist. Best keep it there.
Graham Linehan got that, with his 2011 Ladykillers stage play. All the key elements are preserved - period setting, sly characterisations and story beats. (Even General Gordon makes it into the script.) Cunning writing and inventive stagecraft are used to convey the exterior scenes without the action moving once from Mrs Wiberforce's home. 
But the creator of Father Ted, Black Books and the IT Crowd has added much from his own febrile comic imagination. The entire script is reworked - it's sillier and more surreal, and laced with additional character quirks. The relative restraint of the film's humour is replaced with something very different - wild slapstick in the opening act, before a nosedive into pitch-dark farce later on. Linehan's love of the source material remains apparent throughout, but the comedy anarchist who brought us Mrs Doyle, Maurice Moss and Bernard Black grinds his unique stamp into the stage experience. 
The results could and should be hilarious. It's now up to us at Tower to deliver. Our efforts will be noble, I assure you - and on view over the dates mentioned above, at the specified location. Come and see if we can take the vision of Rose and Linehan - and bring The Ladykillers to glorious, dark-hearted life.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Film Review - Wonder Woman (12A)

I will fight, for those who cannot fight for themselves.
Blog readers of a certain age will recall Lynda Carter, the TV incarnation of Wonder Woman, in her spangly costume and bullet-deflecting wrist bands, righting wrongs on a weekly basis and never turning a well-coiffed hair. Given that warm and kitshy show's popularity, it's a wonder all its own that only now has a film version come along. Gone is the kitsch, with Diana Prince/WW getting a full origin story that explores her Amazonian roots (as in upbringing, not hair). It's a film I wanted to like, and - in parts - I really did.
The DC Comics cinema universe (forever playing catch-up to Marvel) introduced their Wonder Woman in last year's Batman Versus Superman. Played by Israeli actress and martial artist Gal Gadot, she cut an impressive figure, easily stealing the boys' thunder in the latter part of the film. This time around she has proper screen time, her 21st century self thinking back on her youth as the princess Diana on Themyscira, secret island of the Amazons. Costumed up, she seems like a woman well out of modern times, so it's fun to see her embracing her powers within this mythological context. Here she is trained up by her aunt - Robin Wright's impressive Antiope - until able to pit herself against the toughest of her Amazonian sisters. 
Taking a similar route to Captain America: The First Avenger, the film then morphs into a period piece. Diana leaves her island and adopts the cause of US air force pilot and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) during the final days of the Great War. Nurtured on stories of the god Ares and how he brought conflict to mankind, she has a goal both simple and noble - the end of war itself. Nice idea if you can pull it off. 
Gadot is the centre of this film and its greatest asset - beautiful, powerful and empathetic, thankfully without being fetishised at any point. (Yes she's in the iconic glam outfit, but it's because she's a mythological warrior, not because she's totty.) Visually the whole enterprise is splendid - from the glittering Mediterranean vistas of the opening act to a well-realised period London and the grit of the Western Front. The action sequences are more about one-on-one combat than the city-shattering CGI of DC's other recent offerings, and are enhanced by the balletic grace of the Amazon warriors' fighting style. In fact the movie is never more alive than when its title-character is wading into a sea of trouble, shield slung about her and sword at the ready, her memorable theme-tune kicking in full-blast, as she strides purposefully forward.
Sadly not all is so wondrous as those stirring moments. The script (and the blog risks becoming repetitive here) does not serve the actors well, with stretches of rather limp dialogue linking together to action scenes. Pine's hero remains two-dimensional eye candy as a result (and he's the young Captain Kirk!), while character roles played by such as Lucy Davis and Ewan Bremner simply aren't provided with enough clever, witty dialogue to chew on. At the risk of sounding like a Marvel fanboy, this is what DC's rivals do so much better - they make their films sharp and funny and interesting, even when characters aren't knocking seven bells out of each other. 
Nonetheless Wonder Woman is worth your time for its splendour, its superbly choreographed action and its noble ass-kicking heroine. If the screenplay had a bit more humour and philosophical heft, this film would be wondrous indeed.
Ed's Verdict: It's Gal Gadot's moment, and she shines along with the rest of the glorious visuals. Just polish up that damn script to match!

Friday, 2 June 2017

Feature - Spoilerific (The Dangers of Reviewing)

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of watching William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth at the Vue, Islington. Nice theatre. The experience was considerably enhanced by the fact that I'd seen no trailers for the film and knew nothing about it, short of a one-line summary and all the sinister connotations of the title. I was able to enjoy the story as it unfolded shot by well-judged shot, every character interaction and dramatic turn a welcome surprise. Nothing, in short, had been spoiled.
It made me think as I wrote the review - how do I convey what I enjoyed about Lady Macbeth, without preempting the story itself? By giving anything away about the plot, am I potentially robbing someone else of the experience I had - that wonderful cold-start viewing?

Keeping my blog entries spoiler-free is something I try to do on a point of pride. I've read certain other reviewers, who think they're being terribly cryptic in their comments, while giving away massive plot twists to anyone with basic powers of inference. I've also heard the film critic I respect most explode a movie's central story development, when even the trailer had avoided it. (The movie was Passengers, a passably good science fiction tale I reviewed back in December; the most intriguing feature of the film was that twist, and anyone listening to the review would have been robbed of the big reveal's impact.) 
So I make a big noise about giving nothing away. 'Trust me,' I've been insisting since last September, 'my reviews are 100% spoiler-free!'

Well I've been lying. They're not, not ever. Because in truth there's no such thing as a spoiler-free review. 

If someone tells me that a film is all style over content, my view is inevitably coloured from the opening credits. If they comment that the final act drops the ball, I'm anticipating the downturn. If they say that the dialogue is clunky, then I'm listening out for each clunk. It's why the easiest reviews to write are the ones where my enjoyment of the film was pure. That's when I can give the least away, bathing everything in glowing but vague positivity. Even then, however, I'm building a viewer's expectations sky-high, so that they might well come tumbling on the actual viewing. I enthused about Arrival, but not everyone had the same blissful experience. I loved Fantastic Beasts as well, while my cinema-going companion that day fell asleep halfway through. 
It all begs that potentially fatal question - why review anyway?

Okay, I suppose I'd better answer that or never blog again.

There are two reasons, I think - each backed up by the responses I've had since creating Filmic Forays. The first is that I'm providing a bit of a service for those who, like me (before I left my full-time job - hooray!), don't get to the cinema very much and want to know what they're getting themselves into before they fork out their ten pounds plus. Maybe that's the difference between them ever seeing Lady Macbeth or not. True, our views on the finished product might not match up, but at least I can give them a rough notion of the experience they might have. Then they can decide whether Get Out or Guardians of the Galaxy is more their cup of tea. 
To those people my promise remains - I'll tread as lightly as I can around key advancements in plot. 

The other reason is that having seen a film, most of us like to hold up our opinions against other people's to see how well they match. (I'm talking here about those who only read reviews after they've seen the film themselves.) It's great when I get comments along the lines of 'Your review nailed it', but possibly more fun when readers' opinions fly in the face of my own. My qualified liking of Alien: Covenant was met by one blog follower with 'It sucked. Sadly. Such a wasted opportunity', and reference to how no scenery was left because Michael Fassbender had 'eaten it all'. Thanks, Dave - your scathing assessments of films I quite liked will always be hugely welcome. 
It's all part of the great cultural debate - the cut and thrust over stuff that in the grand scheme doesn't really matter. And that, in this depressing messed-up world of ours, is precisely why it matters. The trivial has never been more important. 

So whether you read these reviews before or after watching the film, I'll keep on writing them. Hell, it gets me out to the flicks at least once a week, so that's reason enough. And yes, I'll put as much artistry as I can into avoiding those pesky spoilers. Otherwise Professor River Song will be aiming that banana at me