Hampstead Grief

I am proud to say that many of my movie reviews appear on the website of The Light Cinema, both locally and across the country. However, I don’t think they will be posting this one.

With the cinema in mind, I usually try to find something positive to say about a film (see my Baywatch review for example), but even from the most generous perspective, I cannot find anything good to say about the Hampstead.

As a so called ‘rom-com’ it was neither romantic or comedic, and I was nowhere near laughing or crying at any point during this flat, pointless 103minutes of my life that I will never get back.

Diane Keaton doesn’t seem to have moved on at all from Annie Hall, 40 years ago. She has the same cross dressing fashion sense, the same ditzy approach to life. But at 71, and without the support of Woody Allen’s priceless script or direction, it just doesn’t work any more, and all the fashion berets in the world won’t change that.

Brendan Gleeson fared a little better, but you couldn’t help the feeling that he was frankly embarrassed by some of the terrible lines he had to deliver. He seemed to be wrestling with the script like Leo and the bear in The Revenant, with about the same level of success. No wonder he wanted to be left alone; with dialogue like that I’d avoid talking to anyone too.

As for the preposterous plot, let’s not even go there. From people keeping hospital admission paperwork for 17 years, to a hardened woodsman deciding to try a mudpack face mask (producing slices of cucumber from nowhere in the bathroom), it seemed that Hampstead wasn’t even trying to make sense.

They were clearly trying to follow the well worn formula set by films such as the similarly location-titled Notting Hill. American leading lady – check. Well known British leading man – check. Heartwarming story of mis-matched lives and lifestyles – check. They even had a director with form in the genre, with Joel Hopkins having directed similar stuff, to much better effect, in Last Chance Harvey.

Yet there was no chemistry whatsoever between the leads, despite the non-stop naff ‘British rom-com’ soundtrack that ran incessantly through the film in a doomed attempt to create some. Something was clearly missing here, or rather someone. Hampstead had a great big, gaping Richard Curtis shaped hole in it that even this talented cast couldn’t avoid falling through.

It may only be five miles from Notting Hill to Hampstead, but the two films are a world apart when it comes to charm, wit and character. From very early on I found myself wanting to jump a bus up the road to browse in Hugh Grant’s bookshop for a couple of hours until it was safe to come back again.

Films like Hampstead make the idea of living off grid seem strangely attractive.

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Why you should watch Baywatch

Rather predictably, there have been a lot of critics posting sniffy reviews of Baywatch, but I can’t help thinking that they may have missed the point.

This was never pretending to be Shakespeare. It doesn’t claim to have Scorese levels of direction, Aaron Sorkin dialogue or Michael Bay style special effects. It never set out to be a modern classic that will sweep the board at the Oscars and take pride of place in your DVD collection.

This is a Baywatch movie, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. You get everything you would expect: tight swimsuits, sun drenched locations, rippling biceps, slow motion running and lots of heroic splashing about and saving people. You even get Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff, albeit very briefly.

We were probably the only people in the audience who were even born when Baywatch first graced our Saturday teatime TV screens in 1989, but the iconic red, high cut costumes, wooden beach towers and float-on-a-rope trailing out behind a hunky lifeguard sprinting along the beach, have passed into popular culture so much that everyone knew what they were in for.

This is a fun summer crime caper, with added TV pedigree, and while it won’t change your life, it will keep you a lot more entertained for its two hour run time than the critics would have you believe. The gags are funny, if sometimes a touch too ‘American Pie’ in their subject matter, the characters are likeable (although it has to be said the female characters could have had more to say), and the messages of teamwork, redemption and good guys beating the bad guys all work well.

Perhaps most importantly, this is a film that knows what it wants to be, and isn’t afraid to stick with it. Far too many recent films have been tonally all over the place, leaving you unsure whether to laugh or cry. ‘Snatched’ tried to blend comedy with drama and failed at both. ‘The Promise’ tried to be both romance and historical epic, and while both worked in their own way, the two ideas never really gelled together. Even the epic ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ swung wildly from Guy Ritchie East End knockabout to full on superhero conflict.

Whatever faults Baywatch may have, and there are many, at least it knows its tone and knows its audience, and it stays true to both from start to finish. Its tongue is firmly in its cheek throughout and it knows its place – even taking time to mock the plots of the original as sounding like something from a cheesy TV show.

You won’t see Dwayne Johnson collecting an Academy Award next February, and it’s unlikely that Baywatch will be featuring in The Light’s carefully curated ‘Too Good To Miss’ selection. But that doesn’t make it a bad film. And when you look at the depths plumbed by other reboots, such as the appalling ‘CHiPs’, or undo all that expensive therapy by making yourself remember Zac Efron’s previous outing in ‘Bad Grandpa’, it starts to look a whole lot better.

So leave the critics to their Cannes reviews, check your cynicism at the door, and let yourself enjoy some laughs, some excitement and some beautiful people in an exotic location. After all, isn’t that what going to the cinema is all about sometimes?

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King Arthur: East End of the Sword

I suppose if you give Guy Ritchie a budget of $175m, and a cast of thousands, then you pretty much deserve what you get. This is, after all, the man who thought that marrying Madonna was a good idea.

Apparently, he pitched King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as ‘Snatch meets Camelot’, but it feels more like a bad episode of The Sweeney for much of the first hour, as Ritchie’s chirpy Cockney mates ‘sort it aaart’ between themselves. They all appear to be channeling Ray Winstone (apart from Charlie Humdrum, who seems to want to play Arthur as a hard-as-nails version of Craig Charles’ smart-arse Scoucer).

The only exception is Jude Law, who as ever plays Jude Law, with the same condescending sneer he has in everything from Arthurian legend to AI. Plus, of course, there’s David Beckham, who despite being born in Leytonstone, singularly fails to blend in with the Queen Vic crowd when he makes his customary Stan Lee style Guy Ritchie cameo.

All told, I really wanted to hate this film, and I was certainly sinking in my seat, clutching my head many times during the first hour. Yet somehow, Ritchie’s constant bombast slowly managed to win me over, and I was surprised to find myself not only enjoying it in the end, but actually caring what happened.

Yes, the final scenes are very much like a Marvel movie, when Captain America, sorry King Arthur, slays whole armies with his magical shield, sorry sword.

Yes, the visiting Vikings sounded more like the chef from the Muppets than terrifying raiders from the north.

And yes, the whole thing was utterly preposterous from the 300ft elephants at the start to the terrible jokes about the round table at the end.

But it worked.

I don’t quite know how or why, but it did.

Perhaps Camelot still holds some magic after all.

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Hello to Jason Issacs!

If you are not scared of dentists, drowning and doctors when you go in to A Cure for Wellness, you certainly will be by the time you leave. You’ll also want to steer clear of drinking water, floatation tanks and crowds of elderly people too.

Gore Verbinski’s latest chiller plays on all these phobias and more, as it winds its way from its slow, sinister build up, to its out and out spade-in-the-head horror finale, leaving you distinctly unsettled to say the least.

Based on an original story by Verbinski and screenwriter, Justin Haythe, A Cure for Wellness features a fine performance from Wittertainment favourite, Jason Issacs, who manages to be spine-chillingly sinister and completely charming at the same time. Indeed, it is Issac’s understated performance that makes the time-honoured trope of ‘is the hero losing his mind or is everyone actually out to get him’ work so convincingly.

Young Di Caprio lookalike, Dane DeHaan, is also on top form as the bewildered city financier sent to retrieve one of his bosses from the creepy sanitarium, while relative newcomer, and the new Mrs Shia LeBeouf, Mia Goth, manages to maintain a disconcerting detachment throughout.

Sadly, the ever dependable Celia Imrie acts all the other elderly guests off the croquet lawn, and you can’t help feeling the directors missed a trick here. I’m sure there are many senior actors who would have relished the chance to ham it up one more time in what is destined to be a cult horror. Instead we get a mix of benign old duffers, constantly trying to persuade DeHaan to learn a new card game to pass the time in between their mysterious ‘treatments’.

There’s no denying that A Cure for Wellness takes a while to get going, and could certainly stand to lose a fair chunk of its two and a half hour run time. That said, the production design is so sumptuous and the strange setting so beautifully realised, that you don’t mind spending a while looking around before things start getting gory. It’s certainly worth the wait.

As the final reel begins, brace yourselves for some stomach-churning effects and some pretty twisted concepts as the truth behind the ‘cure’ is revealed in graphic detail. You’ll certainly never look at eels again in quite the same way every again.


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The Sound of Lady MacBeth

I talked recently, on Wirral Radio’s Film Friday, about how impressed I had been with A Dog’s Purpose for not going overboard with its score. Instead of the rising and falling strings you would expect from such an emotive film, what we got was a jukebox of hits from the five decades of the film’s time span.

As someone who hates to be told by the music how I am supposed to feel at any given time, I very much admired this aspect of, what I have to admit, was a surprisingly good film.

So you can imagine how much more impressed I was when I came across the virtually scoreless Lady MacBeth. Despite the trailer suggesting that this film is what it would be like ‘if Alfred Hitchcock directed Wuthering Heights’, there were no screaming ‘Psycho’ strings and no tension building kettle drums.

Instead, you hear every step on the bare floorboards of the house, every drop of the pointedly poured tea, and every squeak of the perfidious bedsprings. Which together created far more of an atmosphere than any orchestra ever could have.

The score was not the only way in which this mesmerizing film is pared back. The setting feels very bleak and rudimentary, with no grand Merchant Ivory style exterior shots of the country house. Inside, the rooms are sparse and barely furnished, with neither carpets nor curtains to soften their edges. Perhaps most impressively of all, Florence Pugh’s performance is equally understated, with no outbursts or hystrionics, just a cold, calculated sense of purpose, shared with the Shakespearian character of the title.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t shine in this remarkable film. She is quite simply delicious as she quietly moves from victim to manipulator, oozing self-serving malevolence, while managing to play the innocent throughout. The chilling final, forth wall breaking scene – a rare occasion where music does appear – leaves you feeling quite disturbed, as if you have somehow been complicit in what you have just witnessed.

It is no surprise to find that director, William Oldroyd, comes from the theatre. Lady MacBeth feels very theatrical in its presentation, yet it’s none the worse for that. Its claustrophobic interior scenes make you share the leading lady’s sense of entrapment, while its sparse dialogue respects the audience, and trusts you to work things out for yourself, without needing the characters to explain the plot to each other in that clumsy way that spoils so many modern films.

It’s fair to say that Lady MacBeth will not be everyone’s perfectly poured cup of tea, and it may well be the case that the Shakespearian title will put off some filmgoers who would otherwise have given it a chance. But if you’re looking for a break from the CGI superheroes and the adrenaline fueled action movies, you’ll do a lot worse than giving this subtle story an hour and a half of your time.

If nothing else, you’ll be able to nod knowingly when Florence Pugh inevitably becomes a mega-mega-star, and say that you knew it would happen all along.


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Hidden Figures should be seen

Hidden Figures is the story, or rather three connected stories, of the African- American women who worked for NASA at the start of the space race in 1961. Each struggles to be recognised for their talents and accepted as equals, both to the white employees and to the male workers, while also trying to hold together homes and families of their own outside of work.

Films exposing the race struggle in America are quite common these days, with Moonlight and Fences both joining Hidden Figures amongst this year’s Oscar nominations, and classics like The Help and Selma picking up statues in recent years.

Yet what marks Hidden Figures out from the crowd is that it doesn’t feel like a race struggle, at least not the angst-ridden radical kind we see so often on the big screen. Certainly, the three main characters want to be accepted as equals, but this is not because they are black and demanding their newly enshrined rights, but because they know that they are every bit as good, if not better, than their white, male co-workers.

Taraji P. Henson leads as Katherine Johnson, a gifted mathematical mind who helps NASA solve the unsolvable. She is ably supported by Janelle Monáe as spikey aspiring engineer, Mary Johnson, and Oscar winner and 2017 nominee, Octavia Spencer, as unsung ‘supervisor’ and IBM programming pioneer, Dorothy Vaughan.

All three manage to conduct themselves with quiet dignity in the face of outrageous prejudice, including a half mile walk to the ‘coloured restroom’ and even a segregated coffee pot, and it’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that all three succeed in changing hearts and minds through their understated actions.

With such outstanding lead performances, it would be easy to overlook a fine supporting cast, but they deserve their share of the praise. Kevin Costner is calm and controlled in one of his best roles for a while as boss, Al Harrison, while Kirsten Dunst makes the best of a thankless role as the cold, institutionally racist, Vivian Mitchell.

The only wrong note is the casting of Jim Parsons, best known for his long time portrayal of Sheldon Cooper in the US comedy The Big Bang Theory. As Jennifer Aniston repeatedly proves, once you are associated with such a high profile character, it’s hard to shake it off, and I spent a lot of the film waiting in vain for Parson’s Paul Stafford to say something funny.

With so much domestic detail behind the main story at NASA, Hidden Figures feels a little bit like a TV mini-series in places, and could probably lose around fifteen minutes without losing its impact. As a sci-fi fan, I’d also like to have seen a bit more of the space stuff, but that’s probably just me.

Hidden Figures will ultimately leave you smiling and uplifted, and above all inspired that whether you are man or woman, black or white, if you’re good at what you do and work hard, you will always get recognised in the end. Even if you have to wait an unfair amount of time for that to happen.

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It is ironic that you can tell how moving a film was by how little moving goes on when it finishes, and in Monday night’s showing of Fences, no one reached for their coats until several minutes into the closing credits.

If you haven’t seen theatre on the screen before, like the many National Theatre Live or Globe Shakespeare broadcasts, then Fences will be a challenge. This is not a normal movie and for some, including critic Mark Kermode, that is a problem. There is no denying that it feels stagey and is clearly based on a play. But if you stick with it, you will be well rewarded.

Come expecting a blockbuster and you’ll be confused and quite possibly bored, but come prepared for writing and acting of the very highest order, examining the human condition in searing detail, and you will find Fences to be quite a profound experience. Perhaps this is why it’s had such a ‘Marmite’ reaction on IMDb, with most reviews either 10/10 or just 1/10.

Adapted from the multi-award winning Broadway stage production, and starring many of the original stage cast, Fences is heavy on dialogue and light on action. What’s more, most of the film takes place in a single location – the backyard of the main characters’ home.

There are no heroes and no extraordinary story to tell. But if anything, it is the sheer ordinary-ness of Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson that makes this film so compelling. Frustrated by the missed opportunities of youth, resigned to the daily grind of providing for his family, living for Friday night when the week’s work is done and he can relax with his buddies, this is a man whose frustrations we can all share to some extent. Who hasn’t got a project on the go like Troy’s fence, which never quite seems to get finished? In a world where movie characters all too often achieve the impossible and overcome outrageous odds, it is refreshing to see someone struggle like the rest of us.

Troy is an intense, and intensely flawed character, supported by his loyal and long-suffering wife, played to Oscar-winning standard by Viola Davis. It is the slow unraveling of their relationship that provides the story, as we discover how their past, and their childhoods, have shaped them into who they are today, and see how they, in turn, try to shape the lives and temper the dreams of their own children.

After over a hundred performances on Broadway, the cast understands the emotions of the script intimately, and more importantly, know the nuances of the facial expressions and reactions even better. For all the Oscar-nominated brilliance of the script, it is often the quiet in between the words that speaks the loudest and says the most.

Fences is certainly not for everyone, and those who will appreciate it, will also appreciate the bored sweet-bag-rustlers staying away. But if you enjoyed theatre on screen productions like Gillian Anderson’s A Streetcar Named Desire then you are in for a real treat.

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