Sunday, 20 September 2020

BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC review

In the works for the best part of two decades, Bill and Ted Face The Music sees Keanu Reeves's and Alex Winter's alter egos return to the big screen 29 years after their last big screen outing. Downtrodden by life and still trying to write prophesied song that will unite the world, the Wyld Stallyns bandmates are thrown back into a time travelling adventure in order to save their marriages to the princesses and prevent the collapse of space and time as we know it.

It's been a long time since Bill and Ted last graced our screens, and despite the idea of this mooted sequel occasionally lighting up social media whenever it was talked about by Reeves or Winter, 29 years is a long time to wait for a sequel to a pair of films that, although much beloved by their original audience, don't carry the same cultural cache as other legacy sequels that have arrived in the last few years, like 2018's Halloween, Blade Runner 2049 or the currently delayed Ghostbusters: Afterlife. But that's not to say that audiences won't be keen on lapping up a bit of late 80s, early 90s nostalgia particularly with Keanu Reeves experiencing a huge surge of interest in his output, post-John Wick success.

Face The Music dips back into ideas from the first two films, sending the pair of lovable slacker types on a journey through time in order to steal the song they're destined to write from their future selves who've already written it, with the added pressure that life as we know it will come to an end if they don't perform the song by 7:17pm that evening. Hopping back into the time travelling phone box that helped them navigate history the first time around, they meet the future Bill and Ted at various time points, only to find that the years haven't been kind to them. At the same time this is happening, their daughters Bille and Thea decide to help out their dads by also travelling through time to put together the greatest band in all of history, tracking down Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong and, in what is one of the best pieces of casting for the film, Kid Cudi as himself who's also an expert on the space/time continuum. Oh, and there's also a killer robot sent from the future trying to wipe them out.

Of course, the main draw of the film is the re-uniting of Keanu Reeves with his long time friend, Alex Winter. The film couldn't be made without either of them present, but I'm sure Winter, who has spent most of the last 20 years behind the camera, will acknowledge that it's Reeves star power that has allowed this film to be made at all. Whilst Bill and Ted have retained most of the joie de vivre they previously had, the idea of losing their wives sees them in introspective mode, particularly Reeves's Ted. Frustrated that they haven't fulfilled their destiny, they are on the verge of giving up before Kristen Schaal's Kelly arrives with a stark message from the future.

Approached with some trepidation after the first trailer was a bit limp, I was still cautiously optimistic about the return of Bill and Ted, hoping that at the very least the film could offer a few laughs to raise a nostalgic smile. Thankfully it achieves that, despite the occasional stumble along the way. The time travelling plot device is a complete rehash of the original and the re-characterisation of the future Bill and Ted's may not make a lick of sense, but it moves so quickly that the less successful moments don't linger for long and we're onto the next part. Personally, I was always more of a fan of Bogus Journey than Excellent Adventure, which saw the heroes travel through the afterlife and encounter William Sadler's Death, and if you've seen the trailer it will come as no surprise that Sadler returns again to inject some life into proceedings when they're in danger of becoming stale. You could argue that the film would benefit from Sadler having more screen time, but I think it's timed perfectly to allow him to swoop in and play a key role in the finale without overstaying his welcome.

Of the new cast members, most of the screen time is given to Bill and Ted's daughters, Billie and Thea (Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving, sneakily gender swapped from the finale of Bogus Journey), with the new generation being chips off the old blocks by following their fathers' love of music whilst also inheriting their aloof slacker mentality. Weaving is a star on the rise after her lead role in last year's Ready or Not and brings a joyful enthusiasm to her role, but it's Lundy-Paine who's the standout of the pair, perfectly capturing the mannerisms of the young Keanu from the previous films. This is by no means an attempt to set up future instalments of the franchise that focus on them, but their presence does compliment their fathers' roles and recapture some of the exuberance that's missing from the more weary Reeves and Winter. They work excellently as two pairs on their own separate journeys, but the film is at its best when the cast is allowed to band together.

Another completely bizarre addition to the cast is Barry's Anthony Carrigan as a robot assassin sent by dissenters from the future to destroy Bill and Ted in an effort to save the world. As well as looking oddly fleshy for a robot, there's character revelations about him that will leave an indelible mark on your psyche, so bafflingly strange they turn out to be. He's no competition for Sadler's Death, but he becomes a strangely compelling part of the story as he reveals more about himself. Less well served are Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays as former princesses and current Bill and Ted spouses, Elizabeth and Joanna. They are also sent on a quest through time of their own to discover if there's happiness beyond their lives with the Wyld Stallyns, but this is C, D or even E plot stuff, only really noticed when they happen to intertwine with the action of our Bill and Ted.

Not quite excellent but by no means bogus, this latest instalment in the franchise has managed to breathe a bit of new life into the story with the clever introduction of the Wyld Stallyns offspring. It's squarely aimed at those already familiar with the previous Bill and Ted films, but could well appeal to their next generation too. Check your cynicism at the stage door, and Bill and Ted Face The Music is a sweet return for two of the most lovable doofuses cinema has ever known.

Verdict

3/5



Wednesday, 16 September 2020

WHITE RIOT review


Set against a backdrop of a rising right wing political ideology and how members of the punk, reggae and ska music scenes fought against it through the Rock Against Racism campaign, Rubika Shah's White Riot follows the creation of the Temporary Hoarding magazine by a group of artists and journalists, and the triumphant Rock Against Racism concert they organised when tensions were at their highest.

Although the Victoria Park Rock Against Racism concert is the main event, this is not in any means a concert film; in fact, the actual concert only occupies about ten minutes of the running time towards the end. Shah's documentary is more concerned with exploring the political atmosphere at the time that would necessitate the need for the concert, with the shameful views of Enoch Powell and National Front leader Martin Webster allowed on TV along with shows like It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Love Thy Neighbour and the Black and White Minstrel Show that went towards creating a nation of disenfranchised white youths, willing to blame people based on skin colour alone. 

It's got a hell of a pounding, propulsive soundtrack, including The Clash's London Calling and the eponymous White Riot (band member Topper Headon is on hand to stress that the far-right faction that chanted along to the latter obviously didn't listen too closely to the lyrics), Poly Styrene of X-Ray Specs, Sham 69, and the now unfortunately, ironically named Tom Robinson Band. It makes no bones about outing the views a number of famous musicians aired at the time, with 'the great coloniser' of Blues, Eric Clapton spouting some horrendous racist remarks, and punk icon Johnny Rotten coming out of it pleasingly well by saying he "despise(s)" the National Front at a time when punk was readily adopting nazi uniforms and iconography.

But separate from all the celebrity musician interviews and footage of riots and protests on the nation's streets, the core of the film is the grass roots efforts of a small number of people, including the co-founder of Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the politics and music magazine that documented their efforts, Temporary Hoarding, Red Saunders. Saunders, a photographer and sometime performance artist, is the chief contributor to the film and documentary gold who put himself in the heat of the action serving as the frontman for the RAR campaign. Now in his 70s and sporting a mighty beard, it's the interviews with him that drive the film, whether it be rediscovering old issues of Temporary Hoarding that helped reach out to the youth before the NF got their hands on them, old TV interviews between him and Janet Street Porter or him posting letters in the NME telling Clapton what he thinks of him ("who shot the sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you"). The importance of Temporary Hoarding and the artists and writers who contributed cannot be understated, and even the punk aesthetics of the magazine have clearly been an influence on the visual design of this film.

As the film heads towards its finale, with prominent and influential musicians willing to attend protests (although it's noted that The Clash were "too cool to hold placards") and perform at the Victoria Park concert, there's the hopeful sense that the movement was winning out against the fascists, as can be seen be the sheer number of attendees to the pre-concert march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park. Saunders told the local council that they expected 500 people to turn up to the gig. Actual numbers vary depending on which person you speak to, but safe to say that number was eclipsed.

What's most concerning about Shah's documentary (that I first saw when it premiered at last year's London Film Festival where it won the Grierson Award), is that 40 years after the events of the film and in the 11 months since I first saw it, the issues it raises about right-wing rhetoric and the excessive force used against peaceful protesters by a biased police force have only become more applicable to our times. It was a topical film then, it feels vital now. It's not a film that's factoid heavy but that is unapologetically political, utilising its wealth of archive footage to show how the NF were able to gain traction among the youth of the day, but also how a combination of great music, truth and the power of protest can be an unstoppable force.

Verdict

5/5

White Riot is in cinemas from Friday.

Monday, 31 August 2020

SHE DIES TOMORROW review

 

The latest film from Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine as director, the remake of Pet Sematary and Alien: Covenant as an actor), sees her behind the camera to deliver a bizarre story about a group of Los Angelinos who through mysterious reasons come to the realisation that they will die tomorrow.

Kate Lynn Sheil stars as Amy, a recovering addict who is the first know she is going to die the next day. Her friend Jane (played by indie stalwart Jane Adams) thinks Amy’s oddly calm demeanour is a sign that she’s relapsed, until she also is struck with the realisation of her own impending demise. Quite how they have landed at this idea is not due to any message they hear, or a Grim Reaper giving advanced notice, but comes in the form of a simple, rational acceptance.

This film has the potential to enlighten, confound, and maybe even annoy its audience; so obtuse it is in delivering its basic idea. It feeds into the palpable sense of anxiety many are feeling right now, and is one of a number of films being released that, although it couldn’t have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing introspection a lot of people have put upon themselves, it taps into many fears of our own mortality in a manner that is incredibly timely.

Faced with her own imminent death, Amy doesn’t go on a Purge style rampage or even attempt to reckon with her own existence and deal with unfinished business. Instead she’s overcome with a curious sense of acceptance, her biggest consideration towards her legacy being her hope to be turned into a leather jacket, something she chooses to spend her final hours researching. As this acceptance of death spreads to Jane and then onto others they are in contact with, there’s a calmness they’re swept up in, visualised on screen as a wave of blue and red lights that bathe the faces of the actors as they stare down the barrel of the camera lens, as if they are about to transcend from their world and into ours.

They’re not the easiest bunch of characters to bond with, the most memorable being Katie Aselton as Jane’s obnoxious sister-in-law Susan, talking about dolphin rape over after-dinner drinks with bemused friends. When Jane arrives at the party with her newfound mortality check, the pervasive nature passes onto the rest of the group and turns them into equally docile and accepting people. 

It’s a slow journey that makes the night seem to last longer, but this measured approach never seems accidental. The pace of Seimetz’s film and the visual language on screen reminds of the films of David Lynch, in particular Eraserhead (but nowhere near as bizarre as that). The concept of fatalism will intrigue, and there are clear correlations to the paranoia and anxiety of life mid-pandemic, but despite an arresting visual flair and some solid performances (including a low-key but scene-stealing turn from TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, and brief appearances from high profile stars Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez doing bit player roles), this will enrage as many viewers as it enthralls.

Verdict

3/5




Monday, 17 August 2020

YES, GOD, YES review

Set at a Catholic youth retreat in the early 2000s, Yes, God, Yes sees Stranger Things' Natalia Dyer star as Alice, a typical high school girl with an increasing number of questions about sex. When an AOL chat room encounter leads to her receiving unsolicited porn and engaging in some unexpected cyber sex, she decides that the retreat her classmates are raving about might offer her the answers she's looking for.

 

Dyer is of course best known for her role of Nancy in the immensely popular Netflix series, Stranger Things, which is beloved by a huge audience around the world. Which is why it's strange that, outside of the older cast members Winona Ryder and David Harbour, the younger faction of the cast (with the exception of Finn Wolfhard in the IT films) has been quite slow to head to feature films. But with her cast mate Joe Keery in cinemas this week with Spree and her on and off-screen boyfriend Charlie Heaton maybe, possibly, finally making his blockbuster bow with his role in the long delayed New Mutants due any day now, the time is right for Dyer to join them on the big screen. Well, that's in theory, of course, as Yes, God, Yes is making its debut straight to VOD, possibly in part due to the Covid pandemic, but also by virtue of being a smaller, indie film, but a belter nonetheless.

At Alice's Catholic high school they teach abstinence before marriage, warn of the dangers of masturbation, are pro-life and anti-hem lines more than two inches above the knee. Alice is curious to know what some of these new phrases she's hearing her classmates say actually mean, including the 'salad tossing' she's been accused of doing to one of the boys in her class. When her best friend Laura (Francesca Reale) hears about Kirkos, the new four day retreat some of the "cooler" girls have attended, they both decide to go along to the next intake, with Alice hoping she can silence some of her questions, such as why she wanted to rewind her Titanic videotape to re-watch the steamy sex scene, before she ends up burning in hell. Sadly, Alice's hopes are soon squashed as she finds herself instantly attracted to Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz), a slightly dumb, overly-enthusiastic team leader with fantastically manly, hairy forearms and a proclivity to helping damsels in distress.

It's an unashamed throwback to some similarly themed films released around the time this film was set, like Saved and But I'm a Cheerleader, but with a more refined, real world sense of humour. Although it exists on the tamer end of the scale (the closest this film comes to an American Pie moment involves Dyer and a mop handle - less vulgar than it sounds), at its core Yes, God, Yes is a sex comedy, and an often cringingly funny one at that, steering clear of the more dramatic angles taken on by The Miseducation of Cameron Post and the Church vs common decency conversion dramas of recent years. Here the spin is that this isn't a place they're forced to go to for mending their 'wicked ways' or to stem their feelings of homosexuality (in fact, it's not a subject that's covered at all here), Kirkos is an optional retreat for the students, ran by Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) from school, and is a broader stab at the overall absurdity, hypocrisy and unhealthy attitudes fostered by teaching purity instead of proper sex education.

It's a great performance from the charming Dyer, who plays the conflict between Alice's innocence and burgeoning sexual desires with great comedic effect, discovering new things about her body with the help of the classic mobile phone game, Snake. No, really. Written and directed by Obvious Child's writer Karen Maine (expanded from her short film of the same name), Yes, God, Yes is a smart, thought-provoking little gem of a film that I highly recommend seeking out.

Verdict

4/5



Sunday, 16 August 2020

SUNDANCE LONDON 2020 review

Sundance London normally takes place every year in June at its London home of Picturehouse Central, but this year, for obvious reasons, the organisers have had to pivot to an abridged online version of the festival. I've attended the London leg of the festival for the last few years now and it's always a highlight of the film festival calendar for me, so it was with some sadness that it wasn't able to go ahead in its full format, but hey, at least it was able to continue in a form that kept everyone safe. Rather than back to back screenings, this year's festival opted to focus on three of the most popular films from January's original run - the Paul Bettany starring Uncle Frank, Andrea Riseborough's Egypt set existential dilemma, Luxor, and the Grand Jury prize winning documentary, Boys State. Here's my thoughts on all three films.

Uncle Frank
Set in 1970s South Carolina, Uncle Frank follows college student Beth (Sophia Lillis) and her professor uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) as they travel from their New York lives back home to attend a funeral. Also in tow is Frank's longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdissi), who Frank would prefer to keep a secret from his family after a traumatic encounter with his father (an intimidating Stephen Root) in his youth has left him afraid of their reaction to him being a gay man.

Directed by Six Feet Under creator and American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, Uncle Frank is fundamentally a film of two halves, first focussing on Sophia Lillis's character as she leaves small town Creekville, and the close knit family life and expectations of her as a young woman behind to pursue her studies in New York City. There she comes to learn that the comfortable bachelor lifestyle her family think uncle Frank lives is not entirely true (he even goes so far as to have a female friend pose as his sometime girlfriend), and that he is in a long term relationship with Wally, an Arabian immigrant who is similarly secretive to his own family. When they have to return to Creekville for a family funeral, Wally sees this as the perfect opportunity to meet Frank's family, travelling behind them against Frank's wishes.

There's a period in the film where it's just Lillis and Bettany driving alone, and they're among some of the best scenes in the film. It's not much of a road movie, more concerned with the dramatic potential at the other end, but it's a shame more time wasn't given to the development of this pairing. Both are on journey's of discovery, and despite the sense of fun Wally injects into every scene, there was room for more scenes between these three before their arrival in Creekville and the sidelining of Lillis's character.

Despite the introduction of Frank's long held trauma over the end of his first relationship and his increasing alcohol consumption, the drama and jeopardy of Frank's return home is never earth-shattering, but more by-the-numbers in a pleasingly portrayed way, although the reading of a will provides a real kick in the teeth moment that shakes the course that Frank is on. The film has an often repeated idiom along the lines of "I'm going to be who I want to be, not who people say I should be" that gives an indication as to where the story might head for Frank and Beth. We the audience might see where this very sweet, sincere family drama is going too, but that doesn't detract from the charm and solid performances from a great ensemble supporting cast (I haven't even found space to mention that Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Margot Martindale also feature in the film), and its leads, Bettany, Lillis, and a stand-out Macdissi.

Luxor
I'll be honest that of the three films on this year's slate, the premise of Luxor didn't immediately grip me from the outset, but I was pleasantly surprised with how much it drew me in to its world. The film with an emotional resonance that Eat, Pray, Love could only dream about, Luxor follows Andrea Riseborough's doctor, Hana, as she returns to Egypt after many years away, bumping into her ex-boyfriend Sultan (Karim Saleh) on a ferry and then reliving and re-evaluating some of the choices she made in the past. Directed by Zeina Durra, it's a beautiful piece of wanderlust filmmaking that'll have you booking flights to Luxor (although maybe without Hana's emotional baggage) as Riseborough visits ancient tombs that literally speak to her, and manages to spiritually free herself enough to dance in front of a room full of strangers at a hotel bar before despair grips her again.

There's a real air of the contemplative reckoning of Before Midnight to Luxor, with Hana walking through incredible scenery on an introspective journey to heal her mind from the horrors she's seen in the world, having just finished as a medic in Syria and about to head to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This leads to long periods with little or no dialogue and no non-diagetic sounds, including when she visits archaeologist Sultan at one of his digs. The film also features real archaeologist Salima Ikram, essentially playing herself to give her opinions on the spiritual tourism of the area, with large numbers of (often older aged) visitors claiming to be reincarnations of ancient Egyptians. For Hana, the connection with the world she is looking for is much more current, and even if it's not always overtly stated in dialogue, Riseborough's performance is so strong that we are on Hana's journey with her, experiencing the magic realism of hearing voices from beyond to guide her along her path. Luxor is a journey unlike anything else I've seen on screen before, and worth experiencing for yourself.


Boy's State
The last film of the festival was the Documentary Grand Jury prize winning Boy's State, following a group of young men attending the yearly American Legion sponsored, conservative leaning political summer camp that takes place in Texas each year (there is a girl's state too, although not featured in this documentary). If you think American politics and its cast of characters has become too much of a presence in the daily news cycle, save a bit of room for this thoroughly entertaining documentary that's enlightening about the kinds of 16 & 17 year old boys that would actively choose to enter into the world of politics, performing a mock election and campaigning to decide who gets to be a number of roles, the big daddy of them all being Governor. They all arrive as equal people, or Statesmen, and are assigned as either a Federalist or Nationalist, the party platform to be decided as things go on and the camp mentalities start to resemble something not a million miles away from William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

The mixture of nerves, charisma, strategy and natural leadership talent on show is truly jaw-dropping, and a real insight into the system that breeds such a powder keg of bravado and toxic posturing. There's an element of play-acting to it, both to the camera and to their followers, but as these young men stand on a stage in front of hundreds of their peers and spout their views about guns and abortion, the approval their words gets from a braying crowd goes some way to explaining why change moves so slowly in Washington.

Of the cast of characters, there's a number of stand-outs in both the Federalist and Nationalist camps, including the Bill Clinton-a-like Robert McDougall, with his soft texan drawl and easy going manner that makes him an early hit with the camp, the workhorse Ben Fienstein who, despite making some questionable choices (there's an ever present conflict between how much this is reality and a morality free game), is a strong political presence in his camp; and Rene, who on the back of a crowd-winning speech is quickly voted as party chairman, only to see a small faction turn against him and call for his impeachment. He's also able to cut through the pomposity of his surroundings to deliver some of the film's best zingers, including saying about a competitor "I think he's a fantastic politician, but I don't think 'a fantastic politician' is a compliment either". But, the absolute star of the film is the plucky Steven Garza, who's a man with principles who actually believes in his campaign platform for Governor and who wants people to vote for him because of his policies, not his charm offensive. As his position on gun control (a major issue at this event, particularly in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shootings earlier that year) is called into question, along with the rumours that he organised a pro-choice rally in his home town, he's ballsy enough to stand his ground and say "what I'm going to say next could cost me my chances of winning, but I'm going to say it anyway". It's his refusal to not pander to his voters that makes him a stand out figure in the film, but it's the fact that he does differ so much from his 16 and 17 year old peers that makes you wish the glimmer of hope he offers outweighed the overwhelming majority.

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So, there you have it. Luxor and Uncle Frank have release dates pencilled in for later in the year (although nothing's set in stone these days, but try to check them out when released), and Boy's State is already available to view for Apple TV+ subscribers. As for Sundance London, it's a shame the organisers had to compromise his year, but it was a quality selection, at least. Here's hoping that Sundance London 2021 gets to return to its regularly scheduled slot at Picturehouse Central next year with even more independently produced gems. I, for one, will be there.


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - KING ROCKER review

The abridged version of the 2020 Sheffield Documentary Festival came to an end a couple of weeks ago, except for some screenings the organisers are hoping to hold in cinemas later in the year, when and if there's a way to do them safely. One of the films I was able to see at the festival that I hope will be screened for an audience at some point is Michael Cumming and Stewart Lee's King Rocker, an exploration of the history of the semi-obscure Midlands-based post punk band The Nightingales and its lead singer and figurehead, Robert Lloyd.


Starting in the shadow of Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre, King Rocker first tells the tale of an 18ft tall King Kong statue that momentarily graced the lawn there in the early 70s, opening much debate among the local of why it was there and what relevance it had to them. The story of this statue, and the subsequent travels around the country it took in the decades since its removal from Birmingham, form the backbone of this doc, finding in it something of a talisman likened to Robert Lloyd and his band who, to quote the film, kept on going "in the face of commercial and critical indifference".

The Nightingales are a band with a loyal, albeit small following, having never found mainstream success, despite the best efforts of lead singer Robert Lloyd over many years. Well, if you are a fan of the band and the output of Lloyd, you'll absolutely love this, as director Michael Cumming and 'presenter'/'guide through the history of the band', Stewart Lee, have made a film that matches the irreverent tone of Lloyd's lyrics. If you've never heard of the band and have arrived at this film as a fan of Stewart Lee, you've probably just found yourself in a mostly overlapping Venn diagram you never knew existed, as there's a close friendship and a number of similarities between the two men's outlook on the world. This film is largely composed of conversations between Lloyd and Lee, who, refreshingly, allows his cool on-stage demeanour to relax a little, revealing himself to be an often giddy fan of Lloyd's, happy to wander around with one of his teenage idols and listen to his anecdotes. Even when Lee tries to provide some semblance of a traditional interview format, asking softball questions about the meaning of Lloyd's lyrics, he's happy to abandon it when Lloyd's cheeky response is "the problem with you is you over-analyse everything".

In most 'portrait of an artist' films this lack of a traditional structure would keep the central figure in the shadows, but here it works well, using the figure of the 18ft King Kong as a stand-in for Lloyd as it animates scenes from his life, and calling on the recollections of others to fill in the blanks when Lloyd's recollection of the time doesn't match up to the legend. One such example is when verifying the urban legend that comedian Frank Skinner as temporarily in Lloyd's first band, The Prefects, as Lloyd can't recall the truth, Lee gets Skinner to appear on camera for a brief moment to give his version of events, including an audition that required him to sing The Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop on the pavement outside a Yates's Wine Lodge. This is a tactic that director Michael Cumming (Brass Eye, Toast of London) uses on a few occasions to try to establish the truth when recollections are a bit hazy (Paul Morley, Nigel Slater, Robin Askwith all appear), and it's funny every time.

On the evidence presented, Lloyd was and continues to be something of a creative dynamo, trying his hand at frontman and singer for various bands, an attempted solo career with an early 90s Hugh Grant-ish floppy curtains haircut (signed to Virgin. "Bunch of cunts", says Lloyd), a music video producer, a TV sitcom creator and a postman. Quite why these projects failed to succeed is up for debate (drummer Paul Apperley offering the suggestion that "everyone loved us apart from people who bought records"), but it's impossible not to admire Lloyd's tenacity and willingness to have a go at anything. The film does touch on his personal life, most touchingly the relationship he has with his son, who's able to offer his view of what life was like with Robert Lloyd at his lowest ebb as his father.

Like I said at the start of this review, you might not be approaching this documentary as a fan of Lloyd's work, but by the time we reach the music video finale, I would be surprised if you're not fully converted. It's a playful, verbally dextrous, often scattershot look at the unpredictable career of a musical behemoth who has been misunderstood in his own time and unappreciated by the masses, but given Lloyd's ability to bounce back in the most surprising ways, I wouldn't count him out just yet.

Verdict
4/5


Thursday, 9 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - BRING DOWN THE WALLS review

 
Directed by Phil Collins (the visual artist, not the Genesis drummer/singer) the title Bring Down The Walls refers to a civic space set up in 2018 in New York City that in daylight hours brought people together to question the current state of the American prison industrial complex, before turning into a club playing house music at night times. At Bring Down The Walls, their argument was that reform is not effective enough and therefore abolition is the only answer to the problems of harsh sentencing and a rapidly expanding prison population (currently over 2 million) that is disproportionately made up of young men of colour.

There's a lot of weighty, increasingly topical statements made across the course of the film by a number of speakers talking from their own experiences. In first hand accounts from ex-prisoners guilty of petty misdemeanours, serious crimes, and in one case innocent and exonerated after spending more than half his life behind bars, they talk about the sentences handed down to them and how the system is rigged against them due to their economic or social background. Added to this, parole boards are choosing to add years to someone's sentence without the need for a judge, jury or even a lawyer present to act on their behalf. The film also covers the fact that although slavery may be illegal, by definition it isn't if you are incarcerated. Prisoners may get paid 10 cents an hour for their work (there's pushback from one speaker as he argues against this being called a job), but the fact that arrest rates for young black men are so disproportionately high, particularly in some areas of the country, makes a compelling argument that the system has managed to work against its black citizens to revert back to darker times in America's history.

The film skips between these speeches, delivered almost always to a crowd of young, socially aware people who can relate via similar experiences that have befallen members of their families, to scenes of the nightlife aspect of the space and performances from some of the previous speakers who have found a way to process their prison experiences into music. At one point in the film Collins goes as far as to include what amounts to a music video that doesn't seem to bear any relevance to any of the speakers, but one would assume does to the BDTW space and the people that frequented it. 

As an argument for the need for inclusive civic spaces, open to all to share their experiences, it's a convincing one. As a document of a club night with house music playing to a rapturous crowd and vogue balls (judged by FKA Twigs) attended by mostly black, queer youth, it sure looks like a fun place to be. But much like the dual uses the space has, the film is a bit scattershot, like stream of consciousness documentary filmmaking. Director Phil Collins was a key player in the creation of the space and this filmed document does deliver its message, with compellingly put forward arguments. A choice has been made to not include any explanatory inter-titles, and with minimal voice-over we are forced to listen to ascertain the important details, like one of the assembled audiences. Never notably at odds with the joyous frivolity of the house club scenes, this is a bold, humanistic film asking for change in one of America's most contentious institutions. There are voices that deserve to be heard, and Collins' film gives them a platform with style.

Verdict
3.5/5

Monday, 6 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - FLINT review

 Filmed over the course of 5 years, Flint looks at the environmental and health issues that have befallen the residents of Flint, Michigan, after the State Governor forced them to change their water supply in a cost cutting measure. Director Anthony Baxter (You've Been Trumped) follows a number of the locals as they campaign for a solution to their ongoing concerns about the state's lack of effort to fix the problems they created.

Described as 'the Silicon Valley of its day', Flint was once a thriving industrial city thanks to the motor industry that employed most of the residents. Now that the car manufacturers have largely deserted Michigan, Flint now has one of the highest poverty levels in the country; something that incoming Governor Rick Snyder hoped to change by drastic cost cutting across the region, including the decision to have Flint source its water supply from the local Flint River instead of the Great Lakes. A catastrophic move if ever there was one, the Flint residents were forced to drink and bathe in brown water that the powers that be claimed was completely safe, even after testing revealed it to have dangerous levels of iron, and the rates of stillbirth and infant mortality skyrocketing. Baxter and his team appear to have been on the ground in Flint since early on in the scandal, as locals are forced to buy gallons upon gallons of bottled water to consume and bathe in. Mothers show evidence that their children developed skin conditions from showering in the water they were told was okay to use, and even when Governor Snyder relented and the water was reverted back to the original Great Lakes supply, the damage done to the pipework infrastructure continued to poison Flint residents for years.

There's plenty of elements to this film that show Flint to be a microcosm of many of the issues that are plaguing America at the moment. During one of many protests of government buildings, Reverend Ira Edwards couldn't put it more clearly when he states, "You see what happens when you elect a businessman to run the state? He doesn't care about the people he hurts... he doesn't care about the lives he effects. Enough is enough". Chants of "No justice. No peace" and placards of 'Flint Lives Matter' from the BAME residents offering further evidence that not all people in America are considered equal. The issues shown here are many, and are documented with an eye for detail by Baxter and his team; however this does lead to the film having a lack of consistent focus. A balanced and level-headed account of what is understood to be the facts, Governor Snyder and his decision making abilities is pushed to one side whilst we follow the genuinely inspirational grass roots campaigning of Flint residents, and the efforts of two highest profile experts from Virginia Tech and Water Defense. There to test the supplies for Flint to ensure it can be safe to drink again, it turns into a complete soap opera as defections, uncomfortable revelations and threatened lawsuits (including against the filmmakers), for lack of a better term, muddy the waters.

The film has a strange relationship with celebrity, as Mark Ruffalo and his Water Defense charity appears in Flint, in what appears to be a genuine attempt to use his star power to make sure the issue is not forgotten, albeit (unbeknownst to Ruffalo) based on questionable science and research methods. Concurrently, the film is so enamoured by the involvement of Alec Baldwin as a (underused and arguably unnecessary) narrator, that it's prepared to change the course of its finale when, after seeing a rough cut of the film, Baldwin decides to increase his involvement and actually sets foot in Flint. It's a gallant attempt on the part of both men to try and highlight what is a serious issue, and perhaps this was an attempt by Baxter to add some sort of closure to proceedings that are far from over, but from a filmmaking point of view Baldwin's involvement in the production only adds another non-sequitur to what is already an over-long and over-stuffed narrative, and doesn't help to solidify any of the points raised in the film.

Every issue raised in this film is an important one that needs attention, and the continued mistreatment of the Flint residents is clear, but by trying to cover all of the issues in the 2 hour running time, Anthony Baxter's film struggles to wade through the narrative threads to deliver a stronger, cohesive argument. The most resonant element of the film, particularly now during the Covid-19 crisis, is seeing how the community sprang into action, as volunteers deliver bottled water supplies to other locals, and educate them on the unseen dangers of things they once took for granted. Were the film to have centred itself on these campaigners and protestors and not got bogged down in the minutiae of (real and bogus) test results, this could have been a more powerful statement about the community of Flint as a whole.

Verdict
3/5

Saturday, 4 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - KEITH HARING: STREET ART BOY review


Telling the life story of Keith Haring, the enfant terrible street artist who found an extraordinary level of fame in the New York art scene of the 1980s, holding regular parties with celebrity friends like Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and Yoko Ono in attendance; this new documentary speaks to his family members and art world friends to uncover the genesis of his particular style of artwork.

If you don't know the name Keith Haring, you will probably still recognise the bold, graphic line drawings of his art from campaign posters, album covers and even as a backdrop to a Madonna tour. This film is largely composed of contemporary interviews with his friends and family; but also Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31, has a constantly present voice here, with excerpts taken from countless interviews (both audio and video) he did at the peak of his fame. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Haring would cut photos of The Monkees' Davy Jones out of the girl's magazines he was allowed to buy, and write anti Richard Nixon graffiti on local buildings using soap. Clear to all the Pennsylvania was not a big enough canvas for him, he moved to NYC in the late 70s to attend the School of Visual Arts, and to explore his sexuality in the gay nightlife of the East Village. Haring was an artist who, similarly to one of his idols who he would work with, Andy Warhol, knew the importance of exploring his own image; and so this doc makes use of a ton of archive photos and self-shot videos made by Keith in the early 80s.

Having taken inspiration from the graffiti artists that would spray paint on the sides of subway trains, he adapted this approach into something more befitting his style, using the subway system to travel from station to station, drawing his 'baby' and 'dog' cookie cutter outlines on the blank, black, unused advertising hoardings and gaining infamy among the many commuters who would see his work spring up every day. Whereas the graffiti artists (among them Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy, who are interviewed here) used the trains as a moving canvas, Keith Haring used the trains as a vessel to transport you through the art gallery he created across numerous subway station platforms. His style was simple in execution, but unique, bold and inventive.

What this doc tries to express is why Haring, who was a formally trained artist able to present his work in major exhibitions around the world, chose to include his artwork to walls and lampposts, gratis. He was among the artists who knew how his work could entertain and delight, but in the capitalist Reagan years of the 1980s, was not coy about making money from their artwork. He even went as far as creating 'The Pop Shop' to allow people to buy both mass produced and unique pieces of his art for a reasonable price  (he was prolific, popular and profitable); but he would also design murals on blank walls in his beloved New York to highlight his increasing activism as the 80s went on and his health began to worsen.

It's incredibly touching to see his now elderly parents display so much of the trinkets, drawings and art pieces they have kept and collected from their son. Even if they do seem to be completely baffled by some of the art, their pride in his achievements is clear. A moving, intimate study of an artist, with a poppy post-punk, Devo and B-52's infused soundtrack; a prior knowledge of Haring's work is not needed to appreciate his story or his cultural relevance, with his ability to create meaningful, impactful activist art especially resonant in these times.

Verdict
4/5

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy was available via the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform, and is now available via the BBC iPlayer.

Friday, 3 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - THE GO-GO'S review

Part of the Rhyme and Rhythm strand from this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest and available to rent from the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform the festival has launched to combat the lack of cinema screenings due to the Covi-19 crisis, The Go-Go's re-unites all of the key band members of the '80s all-female pop-punk group.



Be honest, unless you were around in the early to mid 1980s, The Go-Go's is a band name that you might be familiar with through cultural osmosis, but could you easily name one of their songs? You're more likely to recall the name of one of lead singer Belinda Carlisle's solo career ballads; or at least that's true for anyone whose mother had Heaven is a Place on Earth on tape and would play it on every car journey (like myself). I say this not to cast doubt on the need for a documentary about The Go-Go's, but to ask why such a pioneering all-female pop group, who played all of their own instruments and had a huge impact on their audience at the time, hasn't enjoyed the same level of cultural appreciation as, say for example, The Runaways?

Thankfully, Alison Ellwood's documentary is not just the Belinda Carlisle story, and sheds an impressive amount of light on the history of the band, right back to their early days in the L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s where rhythm guitarist and songwriter Jane Wiedlin and singer Belinda Carlisle decided to form a band, toured the U.K. with Madness and The Specials and then huge arenas around the world when they became one of the biggest success stories of the early MTV days with music videos played in heavy rotation. Ellwood gets full access to every member of the band (even those who either walked early on or were pushed out due to the change in their musical direction), all interviewed in their lovely looking houses and looking nothing like the rebellious, punky teens they started life in the band as.

Reminiscing on their touring days, each member comes across as likeable enough, but as the interviews reveal, they were a band clearly hungry for success and willing to step over people on the way. Hey, that's showbusiness. The film does reckon with the often cutthroat nature of the music biz, particularly the discrepancy in pay the non-songwriting band members were getting, including frontwoman Carlisle. It's clear that even with some mended bridges, there's still some bad memories and residual bitterness towards the chief songwriting members of the group, although conversely they had a heroin problem (when 1980s era Ozzy Osbourne asks you to leave his dressing room, it's time to get help), and a desire to sing at least one song in the album leading to a dramatic departure and the eventual dissolution of the group. As one member states, they were "like sisters. Sisters who stab each other in the back".

What's most enjoyable about this doc is that you don't need to have been a fan of the band beforehand to enjoy this in depth history of the group, delivering all of the ups and downs, in-fighting, power struggles and reconciliations you could hope for from a true rock and roll band's story. Perhaps the defining story of The Go-Go's is that no matter how hard they toured, due to their gender, they were never taken seriously as musicians. The archive concert footage shows that they were a legitimate punk group in their infancy, dealing with rowdy skinheads on their early UK tour telling them to "show (their) tits", and even when their sound evolved into something more poppy and radio friendly, magazines such as Rolling Stone sexualised them on the front cover in a reductive way.

To answer the question I posed at the start, it's frankly ridiculous that The Go-Go's aren't a more highly revered band. Sure, they certainly had an influence on the generation after them (including Bikini Kill and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna, who appears here to express her love for them), but with a selection of fantastically fun, pop classics (and don't even get me started on guitarist Jane Wiedlin's solo single Rush Hour, possibly the catchiest song ever recorded), they really should be getting reappraised by the 80s obsessed youth of today any time now. This film should go some way towards that, as The Go-Go's is a well orchestrated doc that will please long time fans and those just discovering them too.

Verdict
4/5

Monday, 29 June 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - WELCOME TO CHECHNYA review

Like most of the major film festivals this year, with Covid-19 making the possibility of an in-cinema festival impossible (for the moment), this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest has pivoted online instead. What they've come up with is really rather impressive, with a number of in-demand titles now on-demand on the new Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform that has been launched. Available now until July 10th with various pricing options depending on how many films you're hoping to see, it's worth taking a closer look.

One of the titles I've managed to catch so far is David France's follow up to How to Survive a Plague and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, Welcome to Chechnya. At a time when civil liberties for the LGBTQ+ community are in danger across the world, Chechnya is a place to look at to see how bad it could become if people aren't willing to take a stand. The film features some collected CCTV and other footage of truly horrific acts of violence against gay, lesbian and transgender Chechens, who since a regime change in 2017 are kidnapped, tortured and forced to reveal others by those who don't want them as part of their society. One of the primary instigators of these practices is allegedly the current head of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who in an interview with an American reporter, scoffs at the idea that homosexuality even exists in Chechnya, and laughs at the accusations of barbaric treatment towards some of his citizens.

Thankfully he is not the focus of the film, instead France's camera follows a group of activists lead by David Isteev and Olga Baranova, who are sought out by at risk citizens in the hope they can find a way to get them out of the country, and to safety. One such person is teenager 'Anya', whose uncle is trying to blackmail her into having sex with him or else he will reveal her homosexuality to her father, a high ranking official who Anya fears will have her killed. The preparation and execution of the highly secretive plan to move Anya to somewhere safe (a title card helpfully states "somewhere in Eurasia") is the centre point for the film, and is a tense, terrifying piece of documentary filmmaking. If they were to be caught by the authorities, Anya, the activists and the people behind the camera (often collected as spy footage) would be in grave danger, and this is something the filmmakers have taken into account for anyone still at risk by using an incredible piece of digital technology to protect their anonymity.

Whereas in years past you might expect subjects reticent about revealing their identities on camera to only appear on screen via a silhouetted interview, or perhaps a dramatic re-enactment, or possibly with their faces either pixellated or black-barred to hide their most distinguishing features that would make them identifiable. Here, using a technique I personally have never seen used this way before, the filmmakers have captured the raw footage of their subjects and closest relatives going about their day to day lives, like collecting people from the airport, smoking, talking to each other, etc, and have used a "digital disguise" in the post-production process to super-impose a different face over the top of those at risk. A disclaimer at the start of the film warns you of this necessary process, but it's a startling, uncanny thing to see in use, as the other main focus of the film, 'Grisha', seeks the help of David and his team to move his entire family out of Chechnya, all now at risk because of his open sexuality.

A drawback of such a startlingly effective technique is that you can't help but closely scan the face of every new person we encounter, looking for tell tale signs that the face we are seeing is not their own, such as the slight blurring of the edges that appear when people stand in profile and the face "phases" slightly, like the Scramble Suit in Richard Linklater's sci-fi film, A Scanner Darkly. I was completely happy to accept the face we see as their own, but as new people appear and we see a new face, this detective work did prove to be a distraction. However, I do say this after one single exposure to the process in this film, and fully anticipate seeing this method used in the future where it becomes a commonplace and less of an issue, provided it can side-step association with Deep Fake videos. It's clear that there's no fakery in the story here, and I commend the filmmakers for taking such a bold leap in presenting these people's stories as truthfully as possible. Is the face we see theirs? No. But their words and actions are genuine, as is confirmed in a glorious reveal towards the end of the film, and therefore is worth the sacrifice.

Technical marvels aside, this is a story about the victims of these atrocities, and the people willing to put their own lives on the line to help them get to a safe house whilst they try to find asylum to live freely in a country willing to take them (since 2017, often Canada, but so far never Trump's America). The film shows the urgency for action to be taken, but with so many lives at risk, there are so few who are willing to go public and tell of their treatment, and it's easy to see why. Welcome to Chechnya is a tough watch at times, with violence, rape and an interrupted suicide attempt by one of the safe house residents, all caught on camera. This is undoubtedly an important film, both as an introduction to the digital disguising that will hopefully allow other oppressed people to tell their stories, and in telling the story of the brave activists who hope to bring an end to this truly dark chapter in Chechnya's history. Utterly engaging but truly horrifying.

Verdict
5/5

Monday, 15 June 2020

YOU DON'T NOMI review

"I think we're still talking about Showgirls because we're not done with it". So says the opening voiceover of this new documentary that seeks to re-contextualise the unfinished business audiences have had since its release in 1995 with Paul Verhoeven's cult classic film about Nomi Malone, a Las Vegas stripper turned hottest act on the Las Vegas strip, and decide whether it's worth the critical appraisal some have offered it over the years.


Over clips of the film, Director Jeffrey McHale's documentary uses a chorus of voices to illustrate why Showgirls deserved a better reception in the 90s, with some arguing that it was Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Ezterhas's intent for it to be the gaudy, camp, broadly acted work of cinema it ended up being. Among those voices is Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn't Suck, the definitive critical text on Showgirls where he lays down his reasoning for why this may in fact be a misunderstood "Masterpiece of Shit".

There's an interesting device used to place Showgirls in the context of Verhoeven's other films, by splicing in scenes into the frame of his other films. For example, we have Jeroen Krabbe from 1983's The Fourth Man watching reels of footage from Showgirls, Peter Weller's Robocop wincing in pain as the monitors show him dreaming about a topless Las Vegas show, and Arnie in Total Recall casually looking at the star ratings for Showgirls' dismal critical reception on his futuristic big screen TV. It's a clever little trick that's returned to throughout this film, and suits the campy propagandist tone that's present in most, if not all, of Verhoeven's filmography.

McHale takes time to chart Verhoeven's progress, from his early Dutch sex comedies to his eventual move/exile to Hollywood, and bigger budget, higher concept films like Robocop, Total Recall, and the film he made prior to Showgirls, Basic Instinct. For those unfamiliar with Verhoeven's oeuvre, the cross cutting between these films ties a lot of things together, proving that he's not a director who does things by accident. It's up to your interpretation as to whether the high camp value of Showgirls was an intentional thing, and this doc does acknowledge that Verhoeven, along with key cast members like Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon, have said conflicting things that could push the argument either way; but when placed in the context of his filmography, sandwiched between Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, personally I find it difficult to believe that Verhoeven was not aware of how polarising and provocative his film would be.

It's entirely plausible that the cast and crew's ability to claim, Tommy Wiseau style, that it was always meant to be a low art comedy is a piece of retro-active damage control, and that it really was just a disaster of excess that even a craftsman like Verhoeven couldn't keep under control. What's for certain is that its cultural legacy has jazz-handed its way into audience's hearts, even if they're not sure if they're laughing at it and not with it. Along with the film clips from the film, the doc also has footage from the new life the film has taken on on stage, with drag performer Peaches Christ's interactive screenings in San Francisco, and the lively musical version performed by April Kidwell, that provides one of this film's most touching moments, as Kidwell expresses how taking on the role of Nomi (and her previous stint as Elizabeth Berkley's other famous role of Jessie Spano in the Saved By The Bell musical) helped her get over some deep personal trauma.

Despite what your feelings to Verhoeven's film might be, it's without a doubt that this documentary enriches it, providing you with moments to celebrate and laugh at, like the bizarre use of chips, nails & brown rice and vegetables as recurring motifs, or conversations about Doggy Chow. You may also gain a deeper understanding of Verhoeven as a director who is no slouch in providing a depth of visual language you would not expect, nor need, from a film that were only aiming to provide its audience with base level titillation. What is for certain, though, is that by the finale of You Don't Nomi you will have a much stronger appreciation of Elizabeth Berkley.

If Showgirls really is just an updated version of All About Eve and showbusiness's propensity to chew up potential stars, then Berkley is the 1990s billboard star of that trend. A young actress with a wholesome image thanks to her time on Saved By The Bell, You Don't Nomi does document the course of countless young women who felt the need to prove their worth as a bonafide, grown-up film star by using their sexuality so overtly. Was it a great performance? Well, that's to judge for yourself. But it's undeniable that the critiques of Berkley's turn as Nomi Malone were vicious and often personal, and Verhoeven himself has gone on the record to confirm that she followed every direction she was given, and that the over the top actions of her character were by his design. Dismissed as a bad actress by audiences and by Hollywood, this doc does go some way to try to give Berkley her dues, and by the moving finale of this well presented, insightful documentary, even something of a cultural redemption.

Verdict
4/5

Thursday, 4 June 2020

TO THE STARS review

Set in a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s, To The Stars follows the life of innocent Iris (Kara Hayward) and the outspoken Maggie (Liana Liberato), as a shy young woman and her new classmate who teaches her how to stand up for herself against the bullies at school and the attitudes of the local townsfolk.



Hayward is best known for her starring role as runaway Suzy in Wes Anderson's sweet early teen romance Moonrise Kingdom, thereby gaining instant indie cred for life. Here she stars as Iris, a quiet wallflower who has a medical problem that makes her the butt of jokes by the other girls in her class, calling her "stinky draws" and excluding her from their group. Things start to change for her on the arrival of the new girl in town, Maggie. A rebellious spirit who has been moved away from the bad influences of the city by her parents (Malin Akerman and Tony Hale), she sees something special in Iris that she wants to bring out, so sets about becoming her friend.

The high school is populated by obnoxious boys and gossipy girls, like local prima-donna Clarissa (Madisen Beaty) and her hangers-on fitting into a stereotypical mean girl mould, warning Maggie that "being seen with Iris Dearborne is social suicide". With the situation at home not much better, Iris seeks solitude at a local pond where she can be alone and look at the stars as she swims, although this place is tinged with tragedy as the place where the mother of local farmhand Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann) recently killed herself. It's also here where Iris gets to know Maggie proper, as they both seek an escape from their unhealthy home lives. Iris is able to see through the tall tales Maggie has told the other girls in their class (that her father is a photographer for Life Magazine and she has a career as an air hostess lined up after graduation) and form a genuine bond with her, although she does not know why Maggie is reluctant to reveal too much about her past. Maggie, ever the instigator of bad behaviour, decides to give Iris the confidence she needs to stand up for herself by making her skip school so they can go to the movies and the local hair salon ran by war widow Hazel (Adelaide Clemens).

To The Stars has plenty of points worth recommending, not least the admirable attention to detail in getting the look and feel of the era spot on and bringing this world to life. The hairstyles, the costuming and even the cars are all gorgeous to look at, with the sleepy, dusty Oklahoma backdrop make this a lovely world to inhabit for 100 minutes or so. The costuming and restrained attitudes remind of a similar 1960s set film, Mermaids, although there's a world of difference between Winona Ryder's inner monologue spouting, boy obsessed Charlotte and the main character here. As the shy, sweet Iris, Kara Hayward puts in a decent performance with the role she has, but aside from displaying enough personal growth to brave the school dance and talk to Jeff, there's not a lot of depth shown in Iris, leaving her still much of a mystery that you might question if it's worth solving.

However, this is made up for in Liana Liberato's Maggie, who without a doubt steals the audiences attention at every turn. A troubled but spirited girl with a secretive past and a strict disciplinarian father (if you only know Tony Hale from his often goofy role as Arrested Development's Buster, prepare for your view of him to change), the reasons for the upheaval of her family aren't revealed to us or the townsfolk until later into the film, but once they are they set in motion events that give the film its weightiest drama and an opportunity for Maggie to stand her ground. Sadly, it's here that To The Stars reveals its biggest flaw in its inability to balance the stories of its two leads. Whereas Iris is the focus of the film with her delicate, often sweet coming of age story and her burgeoning romance with Jeff, it's Maggie who has the most intriguing storyline by a long shot. The majority of this does happen quite late into the film, but after one particularly tense scene involving Hazel's hair salon and a number of the local men, the focus shifts back onto Iris, leaving plot threads frustratingly open ended. This is also true of a number of the supporting cast members, including Malin Akerman as Maggie's mother and the always dependable Shea Whigham as Iris's father. Both have active involvement in their children's lives, but inexplicably disappear in the last act to who knows where.

Despite some misgivings about the finale and the under-explored potential of some of the plot threads, there is enough charm in To The Stars to please audiences looking for a sweet natured tale of teenage friendship. The relationship between Iris and Maggie rings true, and the efforts made to recreate the era elevate the nostalgic appeal of this slice of small town Americana. Hayward shows promise but after this and Moonrise Kingdom is in need of a role that allows her to be more than the indie-girl ingenue. Liberato, however, impresses throughout, and announces herself as one to watch. She's sure to be a star of the future.

Verdict
2.5/5

Thursday, 28 May 2020

ROMANTIC COMEDY review

Directed, edited, written and narrated by Elizabeth Sankey, lead singer of indie pop duo Summer Camp, Romantic Comedy looks at the history, stylings and motifs of the film genre, and how it's able to have such an emotional connection with its audience.


Comprised of re-purposed and contextually relevant clips from countless rom-coms, if you've seen any other films from the increasingly prevalent essay film documentary sub-genre, most notably Charlie Shackleton's excellent Fairuza Balk narrated teen movie exploration, Beyond Clueless, or the shorter form Inside Cinema doc strand currently available in the BBC iPlayer, you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the structure of the film. Romantic Comedy is presented slightly differently via the personal journey Sankey sends us on through her narration, starting off in a typical teenage girls bedroom before showing us how focused this genre is on making sure its audience's end goal is marriage. Along with Sankey's narration, there's also a chorus of largely female voices (among them The End of the F**king World star, Jessica Barden) to provide insight into various points this film raises, such as why Bridget Jones is both the "HBC" (Head Bitch in Charge) and also a problematic purveyor of ridiculous and dangerous beauty standards, proclaiming herself overweight at a perfectly normal 9 stone.

When dissecting the history of the genre, we go back as far as the 1930s and the screwball comedy era when the starlets were able to be the ones in charge before their agency was stripped away by the predominantly male writers and studio execs, and their only happiness to be found in the arms of the tall, dark and handsome leading men. It digs into the lunacy of the genre's more outlandish meet cute set-ups, like Sandy Bullock's near psychopathic behaviour in the dubiously titled While You Were Sleeping, as she lies to a man in a coma's family and pretends to be his fiancee. Although the title and set-up could easily be affixed to a stalker horror film, her actions are presented as cute and kooky, as the rom-com genre's leading ladies so often are with the rise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The most egregious examples of the MPDG figure are called out, as well as the 'lens of indieness' used to excuse those films' behaviour, like 500 Days of Summer's objectification of Zooey Deschanel's title character, and the rather unnecessary addition in the film's title sequence of calling another woman "bitch".

Sankey's narration openly admits that despite her admiration for the genre, it's not one that is as easily accessible to anyone that is non-white or non-straight, and so defers to her contributors to share their experiences of watching these films whilst also not seeing any approximation of their own lives reflected back at them. It's possibly the genre's greatest flaw, and while this film does cover it to an extent, it's probably fair to say that a thorough dissection of this issue is perhaps not Sankey's aim, and would have derailed what is essentially a celebration of the genre. As well as exploring the impact these flaws have on its captive audience, Romantic Comedy is also just a great opportunity to relive some classic moments the genre has given us, like Cameron Diaz and friends breaking into a rendition of the comically graphic 'The Penis Song' in The Sweetest Thing. Seriously, I wouldn't necessarily recommend watching The Sweetest Thing and its frank sexuality isn't something typical of the genre, but if you need a taster before watching this film, that scene is on Youtube for your eyes and ears to enjoy.

The soundtrack, written by Sankey's husband and Summer Camp bandmate Jeremy Warmsley, serves to pick up those sweeping romantic moments, like the song Women in Love and its backdrop of passionate cinematic embraces. It's here that the films bear the closest of its resemblances to Beyond Clueless, the soundtrack of which was also provided by Summer Camp. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Beyond Clueless was one of my favourite films of the year it was released and the accompanying Summer Camp soundtrack is one I have listened to countless times, independent of the film; but despite the different targets and voices behind the films, Romantic Comedy doesn't hit quite as hard, if only by virtue of it being less unique an experience.

At a brisk 78 minutes, it still finds plenty of chances to bask in the reflective glow of the unattainable ideals the rom-com genre offers its audience. Montage heavy, moving from scene to scene, film to film at breakneck speed in order to illustrate the repeating motifs and archetypes at work across the genre; a rare exception to this is in the discussion of the rightly revered Nora Ephron and her script for When Harry Met Sally. As Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and genre queen Meg Ryan) exchange barbed relationship advice to each other on the steps of a New York brownstone, the scene is allowed to play out to its redemptive conclusion. When done right, it's hard not to be swept up in the power these films have.

Romantic Comedy does throw a net that (arguably) lands outside of the genre boundaries of the title, bringing in God's Own Country and Silver Linings Playbook to sit alongside Mystic Pizza and Sleepless and Seattle, but it's at its best when celebrating the purest examples of the genre. To borrow a couple of film titles, Romantic Comedy is a fun collection of some simply irresistible moments in cinema that might make you fall in love, actually, with the genre all over again. Definitely one to consider renting for your next sleepover.

Verdict
3.5/5

Romantic Comedy is now available in the UK on Mubi.