Category Archives: review

Fringe 2017 Reviews: Julius Caesar (With Pirates)

fde992_527ef8796fe0460f800cb789ce6bd666~mv2There’s mutiny afoot on the pirate ship, Rome.  Fresh from his victory over former captain Pompey, Caesar’s tyrannical command causes unrest amongst the crew. A mutiny supported by first mate Brutus might help restore democracy to the ship, if greed and in-fighting don’t get the better of the mutineers’ good intentions.

This is the second production I’ve seen by Some Kind of Theatre. Last year’s Steampunk Tempest was a little rough around the edges, but inventive, funny, and ultimately true to the source material.

I’m surprised they chose Julius Caesar as a follow-up – if I had to guess, I’d have expected them to stick with the comedies, not tackle one of Shakespeare’s heaviest plays. The other productions of Julius Caesar at the fringe this year include an all-female production described as ‘relevant and gritty’ and a production set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

Some Kind of Theatre takes a totally different route, presenting Julius Caesar – with PIRATES! And you know what? I’m all for it. It’s fun, it’s irreverent, and the soothsayer is a talking parrot.

Aesthetically, for the scale of the production it looks great. It’s part of Some Kind of Theatre’s Shakespeare on the Sofa project, portable productions designed to fit into any venue, intended to make Shakespeare accessible to a wider audience.

The storybook backdrop is ingenious, simple but very effective, and the piratical aesthetic is very slick. If you’re smart enough you don’t need a whole lot to make a real impression. It’s a nicely choreographed, visually appealing, concise little production.

The concept of Julius Caesar as a pirate captain is an interesting one – sailing the ship of state, perhaps? Ha. There is some cognitive dissonance from the fact that the characters are now ostensibly outlaws rather than the state government, but given what a light-hearted production it is, I’m willing to let that slide.

I was pleased to see that, silly as the premise is, they didn’t shy away from the play’s darker moments – despite the talking parrot and the swashbuckling swordfights, it’s still a story about politics and murder, and the bloody heart of it comes through.

Julius Caesar has (I gather) a complicated plot and a lot of characters and for the most part they’ve done a good job of condensing it down into an hour and the minimum of players. However, I was a bit uncomfortable the resulting handling of Mark Antony.

In this production, Mark Antony is a woman – and Caesar’s wife, combined with the character of Calpurnia. On one level, the gender flip is a bit of a masterstroke.

When Mark Antony is a woman, you get a story in which Caesar’s murderers don’t expect any retribution because they’d never expect Mark Antony to declare war on them. They let her speak at Caesar’s funeral because they assume they can control her. The line Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s /In the disposing of new dignities takes on a whole new meaning.

But did she really have to be Caesar’s wife? I recognise that someone had to have the portentous dream (that Caesar ignores) but that role could have gone to Antony without their being married.

I’m of the opinion that, as a general rule, you can either have two Shakespearean characters who are, in the original text, close platonic friends be lovers or have one of them be a woman. When you do both, the implications get a little unfortunate.

I’d be more charitable here were it not for the fact that last year’s Steampunk Tempest also contained some… strange cross-gender casting (I’ve never seen a woman play Caliban before, and frankly it’s not an experience I’d like to repeat). I’d suggest that they think through the possible implications in future!

Otherwise, though, I had a good time! It’s not the smoothest Shakespearean production you’ll see at the Fringe this year – some of the cast do struggle at times with the dialogue, making the plot hard to follow for those of us who haven’t read the play – but it’s certainly one of the cheapest, and the only one with pirates. And a talking parrot (puppet).

Julius Caesar (With Pirates) is on until August 18th 7PM @ Black Market. Entry is free, suggested donation £5. Take your friends, get some culture, enjoy some pirate antics.

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Review: Doom Coalition 1

doomDoom Coalition is the second in Big Finish’s run of Eight Doctor boxset series, a sort of series of mini-series. The first, Dark Eyes, was something of an experimental piece – the first volume was actually intended as a standalone. Doom Coalition was apparently planned as four boxsets from the outset.

And I’m not going to lie, it does feel like a little bit of a cashgrab. Dark Eyes was experimental and a big risky and it paid off, so naturally they have to do another one, equally ominously-titled.

But I can hardly complain. After all, I did buy all four volumes, and it’s not as if I didn’t have great fun listening to the first four stories:

The Eleven by Matt Fitton

The Doctor is summoned back to Gallifrey to deal with a dangerous escaped criminal: the Eleven, a Time Lord who, for reasons unknown, has retained the consciousnesses of all his previous incarnations.

The Eleven is mostly an action-packed thriller, a solid hour of the heroes trying (and failing) to keep the Eleven from escaping Gallifrey, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Classic Who’s handful of stories set on Gallifrey are, in my opinion, generally a bit weak. They generally lack both the budget and the creativity to properly realise the seat of the Time Lords. The Eleven is a rare gem, playing up both the familiar (graduate students) and the alien (mind probes) elements of Gallifreyan society.

The Red Lady by John Dorney

The Doctor and his companion Liv travel to London circa 1963, where they meet new companion Helen Sinclair and find a deadly menace lurking in a collection of antiquities.

This is some seriously creepy stuff. I think the only word for it is Moffat-esque; eerie, psychological, and mysterious. It follows in the footsteps of Blink and The Impossible Astronaut, but still manages to feel fresh and original.

The Galileo Trap by Marc Platt

The Doctor, Liv and Helen travel to Renaissance-era Florence in search of the Doctor’s old friend Galileo, only to find the city beset by a mysterious plague, terrifying monsters – and that Galileo wants them as far away from him as possible.

I remember that I enjoyed listening to The Galileo Trap, but a week or so on it’s some of difficult to remember the plot. There’s just so much going on, the script juggling setting up the boxset finale with a complicated plot involving Galileo, outer space bounty hunters, and cyborg police officers. The result is a bit of a jumble, but a fun one.

The Satanic Mill by Edward Collier

Straight into the next adventure, the Doctor decides to spring the trap and goes straight to the Eleven’s new stronghold – a planet-sized factory floating between Mercury and the Sun.

The Satanic Mill is seriously atmospheric, with a setting that’s viscerally disturbing. Left on their own, Liv and Helen really get a chance to shine, rallying the factory workers into a revolution.

In retrospect, though, the main focus of the narrative is really just the Doctor figuring out what’s going on in the factory. Once that mystery is solved, the remainder of the story is mostly just him escaping the Eleven’s trap with relative ease, a lot of running about and shouting, and a whole lot of unanswered questions as the Eleven refuses to explain his grand plan.

That said, the concept behind The Satanic Mill is so twisted and so brilliant that it’s hard to complain.

Overall, as I said, I had a really good time listening to Doom Coalition 1. It’s four hours of good, solid Doctor Who.

The standout story is definitely The Red Lady, which is a little disappointing as it’s the only standalone story in the boxset – it’s a pity it outshines the main drama.

Helen Sinclair has the potential to be a great addition to the TARDIS team – I like Liv Chenka in theory, but in practice she’s such a grim, jaded character that she can get a bit wearing. She’s definitely at her best when she has a brighter, less cynical companion to balance her out.

After her first story Helen didn’t have as much to do as I might have liked – she spends a lot of The Galileo Trap being bewildered at what’s going on and The Satanic Mill is focused heavily on the Doctor and the Eleven. However, there’s still three more boxsets (twelve more episodes) to come so room to grow!

I have mixed feelings about the Eleven. The idea of a Time Lord with multiple consciousnesses in the same body is a logical and interesting extrapolation from existing canon, but it’s saddening that the writers felt that such a character naturally had to be a villain, given how stigmatised DID and other similar disorders are in real life.

Even leaving that aside, in the stories I’ve listened to he’s come across as ‘the Master, but he does funny voices sometimes’, which is a disappointingly common trap for Doctor Who writers to fall into, when writing Time Lords villains!

I’d give it a solid 7/10, and I’m looking forward to volume 2.

 

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Review: The Cat Returns

220px-Cat_Returns

(Note: between job interviews and anthology submissions, no time to write a proper blog post this week. So, here’s one I made earlier –  ie, dug out of my drafts from 2013.)

Whisper of the Heart was a reasonably complex and original coming of age story with a perfect blend of fantasy and realism – but evidently the most popular part was the dapper talking cat, Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, for he got a kitty-themed film all to himself.

It’s a much shallower film than its predecessor, with less detailed animation and a straightforward fairytale plot. Schoolgirl Haru saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat transpires to be the Prince of Cats, and his father, the Cat King, is so grateful than he insists Haru take the prince’s paw in marriage. Not enthused at the prospect of marrying a cat, Haru seeks the help of the Cat Bureau. Therein enters the Baron, a living cat figurine who is determined to save Haru before she is transformed into a cat forever…

It’s pretty standard children’s fantasy far, with a lot of kitties – and I mean a lot. If you’re a cat person you will probably like this film. If you’re not a cat person you might come out of it hating them.

The ending is something of a disappointment, with Haru having grown as a person by virtue of… I don’t know, adventure? And cats? But it’s worth a watch, partly for the star-studded English dub (Anne Hathaway as Haru, Tim Curry as the Cat King, Cary Elwes as the Baron) and partly because it’s pure kitty-filled fun.

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Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events

5db16efdb30f9cd831a2484f3af36cad6cb97ee7A confession: I didn’t think the 2004 film of A Series of Unfortunate Events was all that bad. Sure, a lot of the changes it made irritated me (Klaus doesn’t have glasses! Why does Klaus have no glasses?) but compared to some book-to-film adaptations… it was pretty okay?

As such, while I do prefer the new Netflix series, I just don’t see as much to choose between the two. In my head they’ve already turned into a sort of Unfortunate blur. Doesn’t help that some elements in the series are actually from the film rather than the books!

Anyway. The aesthetic and tone of the series are absolutely perfect – they really nailed it there. Including Lemony Snicket himself as a character was a masterstroke. And I love the theme song!

I also loved all the new material. Introducing the VFD arc earlier was definitely the right way to go and it was really nicely done. I especially liked the whole Zombies in the Snow sequence, which is, if I recall correctly, a dramatisation of a very strange chapter of Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorised Autobiography.

However, the big downside of the extra material is that it does sometimes diminish the Baudelaire siblings. Ideas they came up with themselves in the books are now indicated to have been orchestrated by VFD agents. It makes the children into less smart, less active protagonists, and it kind of takes away from the ‘you’re on your own now’ feel of the books.

And, I admit, I’m still not sold on Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. He does a perfectly good job – it’s just that Neil Patrick Harris is such a distinctive actor that I can’t see him as anyone other than Neil Patrick Harris. I never found his Olaf fully convincing or, to be honest, threatening enough. Similarly, Patrick Warburton is a fantastic narrator, but he’s not how I imagined Lemony Snicket.

It’s not perfect, and I’m not as excited as a lot of people seem to be. But it was a very enjoyable and very faithful adaptation and I look forward to the next season.

 

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2013 Film Reviews: More Comedy

kinopoisk.ruThe Way Way Back

Here’s a rare thing: The Way Way Back is a film that can only be described as awkward – and that’s a compliment. Somehow.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a shy fourteen year old boy getting a job at a water park while on vacation with his mother and her boyfriend. And that’s really about it, in terms of plot. The dramatic climax is a ride on a water slide. But somehow it really does work.

The Way Way Back excels at evoking awkward social situations in a manner which is played primarily for awkwardness, not for comedy – though it often is funny. It’s something of a socially awkward fantasy. A recurring theme is apparently awkward situations the protagonist is forced into turning out to be entirely positive. Is that a thing that happens often? I don’t know, but it’s a nice idea, motivationally speaking.

All in all, it’s a really nicely written dramedy that I suspect will be overlooked somewhat – the premise is not an easy sell and its trailers misrepresented it as a rom-com – and very much worth seeing. Especially if you’re a community fan – Jim Rash a.k.a. Dean Pelton co-wrote and directed. If that’s not something to recommend it I don’t know what is.

MV5BMTU0NzE0Mzg3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY2MDY3OQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_In a World

Now here’s a thoroughly unusual comedy. Lake Bell’s directorial debut and (presumably) pet project, it’s a feminist comedy about trailer voice-overs.

Bell plays Carol, daughter of legendary trailer voice-over artist Sam Sotto. She works as a freelance vocal coach, but dreams of breaking into the male-dominated field of movie trailers. The film is firmly grounded in reality: the gender disparity in voice over work is very real, as is the domination of a tiny number of performers. It even opens with documentary footage introducing the late great Don LaFontaine before seguing into the fictional world. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line is at times: the film trailers Carol voices are entirely fictional, but at least some of the characters are real people.

But the world of trailer voice-overs is largely a backdrop. Much of the film is concerned with Carl’s personal life, her budding romance with her sound-mixer, her sister’s struggling marriage, and her changing relationship with her father as the two of them come into competition for the same job.

In a World is ultimately a meditation on the important of the female voice, literally. Women’s voices are a recurring theme throughout the film and Carol’s voice is eventually heard by the whole world. It’s an important message and it’s delivered, though not perfectly, without being heavy handed.

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2013 Film Reviews: Animation

Despicable-me-2-many-minions-pp33148Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a sequel to Despicable Me. Which is to say: if you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too. It has the same tone, the same sense of humour, the same slightly surreal quality. But unfortunately it has many of the same problems.

The action-adventure side is just as good as the first film – possibly even better. It does a good job of fleshing out its world with the addition of an anti-villain league. How’s that for a rarity: an animated film sequel that actually advances the story rather than simply retreading.

Unfortunately, the emotional centre is less solid. The emotional centre Despicable Me was very much Gru bonding with his adoptive daughters. Here it’s the romance subplot. It’s a sweet enough romance subplot, if a little shallow in some places, but romance subplots are dime-a-dozen. The three daughters have less screentime; it would have been nice to see more development of their relationship with Gru, and to see any development at all of their relationship with Lucy (the woman who – spoilers – becomes their new Mom).

Really, though, most of the problems with Despicable Me 2 can be traced back to one thing: the Minions. Don’t get me wrong, the Minions are funny as hell, but they have far too much screentime here. The issue with the Minions is that as cute and funny as they are, they cannot sustain a narrative. They have no individuality. They’re just an endless mass of yellow blobs in dungarees. And yet for some reason they play a central role.

But if you’re willing to put that aside, Despicable Me 2 is a whole lot of fun.

Monsters_uni_post_2Monsters University

A whole lot of people seemed to be a whole lot more excited for this film than I was. I’ve never been that keen on Monsters Inc – I re-watched it lately and I like it just fine, but it’s one of Pixar’s more predictable films. And – though this seems to be a common sentiment – I’d rather have seen a sequel than a prequel. The ending of Monsters Inc was plenty open enough to warrant one.

So in a sense, I was pleasantly surprised by Monster’s University. It has the same flavour as its precursor, the same style of comedy and the same vibrant visuals – the monster designs are truly brilliant – but with a plot that’s actually kind of surprising. I confess I was spoiled for the ending, but I think had I not been it would genuinely have taken me offguard. The climax of Monsters University messes with your expectations in a big way, twisting conventional narrative tropes on their head and arriving at a really unusual Aesop: the ultimate message is that you sometimes have to accept that, no matter how hard you try, there are things you’re just no good at.

But on the flip side, predictable as it was Monsters Inc had a striking premise, some fascinating fantasy concepts, and enough attention to detail in the execution to pull it off. Monsters University has… college movie tropes. Subverted at times, sure, but they’re still standard fare. As much as I enjoyed it, I can’t help but think that there was some wasted potential here.

I’m also really not sure who the target audience is supposed to be. Monsters Inc is very much a family film, with themes tailored for children and their parents. Monsters University is a film that will only really speak to college students and graduates – possibly only graduates, since I have no idea how well it reflects the contemporary American university experience.

However, as is often the case, this is me nitpicking. Pixar is in the unfortunate position of having set the bar very high for themselves. Their filmography is so strong that it’s hard not to measure their recent films against it. On its own merits, Monsters University is a really fun film with a moral message that rings true without being overdone. Thoroughly recommended.

Epic-Movie-2013-HD-WallpaperEpic

I really wanted to like this film. The first trailers had me hooked with their whimsy and (literal) fairytale quality. It looked like it had the potential to be a really great animated fantasy film. But unfortunately, Epic belongs to a class of animated film that is intensely frustrating.

For the amount of love and effort and attention to detail poured into the animation is just breath-taking. It’s so fluid and so colourful and so creative that really it’s worth watching the film just to get a look at it. The water! The motion! The colours!

But the writers… did not follow suit. Epic is hopelessly generic. You can predict the plot almost blow for blow. The only real surprise for me was (spoilers!) relationship between the lead antagonist and his son – which is, despite initial appearances, loving and mutually supportive. I’d actually liked to have seen it developed more. For the most part, though, Epic is a film with generic, bland leads and all the interesting characters shoved to the sidelines.

What I really wanted from Epic was Ferngully done right. I’ve heard that the director does not like people comparing the two – to which I would tell him that if he didn’t want comparisons to be drawn he should not have used almost exactly the same plot (human teenager gets magically shrunk down, befriends pretty fairies, wacky animal sidekick, almost gets eaten by giant version of small animal, helps save the forest from decay-monsters, learns valuable lesson – c’mon). In some respects it’s what I wanted, but bizarrely Ferngully actually has a stronger moral message.

The villain of Ferngully is pollution, and hence a very real threat to the ecosystem. The villain in Epic is… rot. This is played as the antithesis of life. I don’t quite understand the logic here; yes, decay can kill, but it is itself driven by living things. The weapons wielded by the Boggans mostly seem to be fungal life. Then there’s the use of ‘evil’ animals like bats and crows to characterise the villains – it’s clumsy.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it. It’s generic in a reasonably appealing way – plus there is a lot of creativity and there are some interesting characters (see: Colin Farrell as the steely-jawed leader of the Leafmen). It’s not a masterpiece (dare I say it’s not the masterpiece it could have been), but it’s decent enough.

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Only Lovers Left Alive

only-lovers-left-aliveAs much as I enjoyed Only Lovers Left Alive – and I really did enjoy it – I was surprised to realise that it just barely tops two hours. It feels longer. It feels like at least two and a half hours; and I’d swear half the run-time was composed entirely of Tilda Swinton’s character dancing while the camera spins around her and Tom Hiddleston’s character moodily playing the guitar and the drums…

This is not a fast-paced film. I’ve seen it described as ‘languid’, which seems like the right word. It’s rarely dull, but it’s slow and meandering and for the first hour almost entirely plotless. Actually, it’s a pretty effective demonstration of how you don’t actually need a plot to tell a story. There’s no exposition; we never learn how Tilda Swinton’s Eve and Tom Hiddleston’s Adam became vampires, or how old they are; or how they’re related to Mia Wasikowska’s Ava or John Hurt’s Christopher Marlow; and their fates after the film are equally ambiguous. It’s implied at times that they might be the real Adam and Eve (and Ava Lilith) but this isn’t dwelt on.

It’s a meandering slice out of a much longer and more sprawling story that we only need to see one slice of, because it repeats itself constantly. Adam and Eve have parted ways and come back together before. Adam has been through depressive periods before, and been pulled out of them. Encounters with Ava always end in a bloody death. The recurring spinning imagery (spinning records, Eve dancing, the rotation of the earth) implies the cyclical nature of the story, and of both human and vampire life more generally. Things are bad at the moment; they’ll get worse; they’ll be good again in the future. ‘This place will rise again,’ Eve says of Detroit.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are both fantastic; they were made to play vampires. They have the perfect faces for it, equal parts beautiful and creepy, when they want to be. These are vampires that feel truly old and inhuman while also being warm and relatable. Adam broods and isolates himself, but Eve has a constant zest for (eternal) life; if his character is perhaps a cliché, hers is endlessly refreshing. And when did you last watch a film about a vampire who was passionate about science?

But I hesitate to call Only Lovers Left Alive too refreshing, because it does fall into some of the usual traps of vampire fiction. These are the all-to-common vampires with the mysterious ability to befriend only people who will be famous in the future – although Adam does also name-drop a few old friends who aren’t household names any more, which is a nice touch. And these vampires don’t drink their blood out of bags because it’s more ethnical; they do it because killing humans is ‘so fifteenth century’.

In a word: these are hipster vampires. Classy hipster vampires who have absolutely earned the right to their intense pretentiousness, but hipsters nonetheless. That’s not a complaint; Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as hipster vampires. What’s not to love about that?

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