Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans (2019)

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I’m sending you to Britain./Where’s that?/Exactly. It’s 60AD. Brainy Roman teenager Atti (Sebastian Croft) is always coming up with schemes, but one of these upsets Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts), who is constantly at odds with his mother Agrippina the Younger (Kim Cattrall) for control of the Empire. For his punishment, Atti is sent to the stain of the Empire known as Britain where it’s always cold and wet and he is captured by kick-ass young Celt Orla (Emilia Jones) but they eventually come to an understanding.  She is feeling her way towards warriordom much to the frustration of her father Arghus (Nick Frost) and is encouraged by the rise of Queen Boudicca (Kate Nash) who is quickly raising an army to fight the Romans being led by Governor Suetonius Paulinus (Rupert Graves). Atti helps Orla rescue her grandmother from a rival Celtic tribe. They’re always squabbling among themselves, these Celts. To Atti’s horror, when he is back with his regiment, he finds himself pitted against Orla and her tribe at the Battle of Watling Street a bottleneck which inadvertently gives the Romans an advantage because he told them about it and it provides the setting for a mammoth showdown between the natives and their invaders … I am Fartacus!  Adapted from Terry Deary’s books and TV series, this is a funny, quick-witted, mostly innuendo-free Carry On for kids, an inventive and occasionally anachronistic take on the Roman invasion – with songs! Hilarious sequences, lots of broad and actual toilet humour, family values (good and bad) and some very contemporary touches to hit home. Familiar faces abound with Derek Jacobi’s appearance as Claudius making a lot of adults smile. Written by Caroline Norris & Giles Pilbrow with additional material by Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley, Dave Cohen and Jessica Swale. Directed by Dominic Brigstocke. We’ll put an end to bad Romans and make them all go gaga! MM#2450

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Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

All That Jazz (1979)

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To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.  When he is not planning for his upcoming Broadway stage musical or working on his Hollywood film, choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is popping pills and sleeping with a seemingly endless line of women including Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking). He has to deal with his ex-wife and collaborator Audrey (Leland Palmer) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and survives with a daily routine which always commences to the accompaniment of Vivaldi but must include drugs and sex to keep going.  The physical and mental stress begins to take a toll on the ragged hedonistic perfectionist. He has angina leading to hospitalisating and open heart surgery during which all the shows and episodes of his life appear to him in dreams led by Angelique (Jessica Lange) and his stuttering existence is a neverending chorus line on repeat, meanwhile the financiers are wondering if they should bet on his death …  You could be the first show on Broadway to make a profit… without ever really opening! With Fosse/Verdon upcoming on the small screen, it’s time to sit back and relish the great Fosse’s achievements as choreographer and filmmaker once again.  This was based on a period in his life when he was editing the Dustin Hoffman starrer Lenny and staging Chicago. At the same time. Considering that this is about life as performance, it’s crucial that Fosse’s avatar be as intense and rivetting as he was – and Scheider utterly inhabits the role in an enervating interpretation. It’s incredible that Reinking had to audition to effectively play herself, given that she was one of Fosse’s women at the time. Lange is wonderful as the death angel and the literal intercutting of Joe’s open heart surgery with episodes of his life clearly alludes to Fellini’s similarly autobiographical 8 1/2.  And why not. And it’s a musical! With simply stunning production numbers whose editing makes your nerves jangle with joy. This is how dance is meant to be cut!  Co-written by Fosse with producer Robert Alan Arthur, it’s ironic that it was the 56-year old Arthur who died following production and he was posthumously nominated for a slew of awards. I have no idea how, but somehow, somewhere, probably at a festival many years after its initial release, I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen and boy was I lucky. Film as fantasy? It was never more like life:  vicious, funny, dark, nightmarish and doomed.  A fabulously hallucinatory cinematic experience. Jazz hands, flicks and moonwalks? Absolutely! Assume the position.  It’s showtime, folks!

Frontier Gal (1945)

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I don’t want to be a bride – I want to be a widow! Johnny Hart(Rod Cameron)  heads for Red Gulch, looking for the mystery man who murdered his partner. He quickly meets Lorena Dumont (Yvonne De Carlo), a beautiful saloon keeper who is loved by Blackie (Sheldon Leonard), a jealous crook who doesn’t like her interest in Johnny. After he resists her seduction by saying he has another girl back home but she misunderstands his intentions, he is forced to marry her at gunpoint – an actual shotgun wedding! She turns him over to the sheriff when she learns he’s a fugitive with a price on his head. He escapes, spends a night of passion with Lorena, then is recaptured. Six years later, Johnny returns from a long spell in prison to Red Gulch seeking revenge. He now knows it was Blackie who killed his partner. Johnny’s former girlfriend is summoned to meet him, but it turns out he fathered a child with Lorena who’s now a whipsmart five year old called Mary Ann (Beverly Sue Simmons) …… Squaw easy to get. Hard to lose. This little-known western musical comedy is a lively, flavourful hoot from start to action-packed finish, with a zesty performance by De Carlo in a role intended for Maria Montez. Cameron isn’t great as her opposite number in this Taming of the Shrew knockoff, but Andy Devine is the business as Big Ben and little Simmons is just laugh out loud great as the sharp kid Johnny suddenly loves despite not knowing about her existence for five years. An underrated gem, written by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano and directed by Charles Lamont, this zips along to a cracking score by Frank Skinner and some entertaining songs performed by the cast although De Carlo is voiced by Doreen Tryden in one of hers. A gun so big can make a big man like me look so small

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

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As I live and breathe. Grown up father Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children get some help from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) when the bank closes in on their home where his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps out following the death of Michael’s wife a year earlier … Cleaning is not a spectator sport. Perhaps it was inevitable that following the successful transposing of the classic film into musical theatre that Disney would go back to the toybox and raid one of their most significant creations, a live-animation hybrid that lingers long in the imagination and the heart. With songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman and set in ‘The Great Slump’ which we presume is sometime in the Thirties, this is a combination of race against time and treasure hunt, as the shares certificate that will save the family home is in the place least likely to be found – or the most obvious, if you know anything about movies/kites. There is a highly unlikely romance between Jane and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary is rather astringent and inconsistent, the dour interior and visual designs lack the antique spark of the original and there are real longeurs in between the fantasy sequences. Breaking the contract with the audience, there is jeopardy in these, featuring a kidnapping that harkens back to The 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats. You might recognise Willie the Operatic Whale in ‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ but there seems to be a real disconnect with the story and some diversionary tactics – Miranda has a speechifying song part in ‘A Book is Not the Cover’ that could be out of his own Hamilton; Meryl Streep shows up as Mary’s foreign cousin and has an upside down song (‘Turning Turtle’) which has little to do with anything. It’s odd that the true heart of the original only starts to be suggested in the finale, a coda to the action that visually resonates and pops practically perfectly off the screen – at last. Directed as well as he directs everything else by Rob Marshall, who adapted with David Magee and John DeLuca, at least this isn’t a remake and James Corden isn’t in it but Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke are. Everything is possible, even the impossible

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

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The more you drink, the better I sound. Gigolo cousins Christopher Tracy (Prince) and  Tricky (Jerome Benton) swindle wealthy French women as they pursue musical careers on the Riviera. The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to swindle her when he finds out that she inherits a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday. Mary’s shipping magnate father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) disapproves of the romance and proves a difficult adversary. Meanwhile, Christopher rivals Tricky for Mary’s affections…  I want a girl who’s smart, a girl who can teach me things. I hate stupid women. You know why? You marry a stupid girl, you have stupid kids. You don’t believe me? Follow a stupid kid home and see if somebody stupid don’t answer the door. Nutty, silly, completely nonsensical and entertaining in ways that somehow seem very Eighties – it could only be the work of that great musical genius, Prince. With highly demonstrative acting that is straight out of the silent era, a debut by Scott Thomas, a nod to the Beatles’ movies in the casting of Victor Spinetti, and a raft of extraordinary music, this notoriously earned a hoard of Golden Raspberries while being labelled a Vanity Project but is all about romance and the kind of class zaniness directly attributable to Thirties screwball. Analysing performance in such a deliberately OTT eye-rolling production is beside the point. It’s all about pastiche and homage and is as fluffy and adorable as a kitten with daft dialogue and a game cast whose collective tongue is firmly in cheek. Originally Mary Lambert was set to direct but Prince took over those duties, crediting her as creative consultant.  Written by Becky Johnston; with classic songs by Prince and the Revolution and orchestration by Clare Fischer. Total fun.  I do nothing professionally, I do everything for fun

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Labyrinth (1986)

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You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

Andre Previn 6th April 1929 – 28th February 2019

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The man immortalised as André Preview by Morecambe and Wise to a generation of children who grew up with BBC TV, has died today, aged 89. A formidable and versatile wunderkind, he made his name composing and arranging film scores with MGM musicals and in partnership with filmmakers as diverse and demanding as Stanley Donen and Billy Wilder, but was equally at home on Broadway, conducting orchestras, composing concertos or playing jazz. So preternaturally gifted was he that he scored Holiday in Mexico while still at high school – a film mostly memorable for featuring Fidel Castro as an extra! He is the last of his kind. Rest in peace. And thank you for the music. I’m just very pleased to be a musician. MM#2250