Review – Mamma Mia 2, Here We Go Again, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 30th July 2018

Donna and the DynamosWe all know what a worldwide phenomenon Mamma Mia! has become. The stage show is still running in London and no doubt hundreds of other cities; the touring production comes around again and again faster than you can say Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong. The original movie made over $550 million profit at the box office. The only surprise is that it’s taken ten years for this second film to arrive.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainYou’ll remember that Donna Sheridan made her way to a remote Greek Island and converted a ramshackle old farm building into a rather charming hotel. You’ll also remember that over the course of a rather wild few days, she had managed to sleep with three different guys, one of whom won the Lucky Sperm award and helped create little Sophie nine months later. The original Mamma Mia is Sophie’s story of inviting all the potential fathers to her wedding to Sky (Murdoch gets everywhere) in the expectation that she would instantly “know” which was her dad – and of course she can’t identify which one it is, so they all become her dad. Add Donna’s two pals (who made up the group Donna and the Dynamos), sun, sea, sex, and the best of Abba, and it was a dream hit.

Rosie Sophie and TanyaSo Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again is a sequel; yet it’s also a prequel, by employing the cunning tactic of running the story of Donna’s journey from finishing university to chancing upon the farmhouse, alongside the story of Sophie organising a relaunch of the hotel which has gone to rack and ruin, presumably because a year ago Donna died; we don’t know why. Did you know Donna died? By the end you’ll have it drummed into you. Mamma Mia 2 is set in both 1979 and 2018; and with Mamma Mia (the stage show) having been launched in 1999, you basically have reference points to the same story and the same people in the same places over three generations.

Ruby and SophieI know this film has had some great reviews and all my friends who have seen it have been knocked over by its brilliance, several having seen it twice already. So, I ask myself, have I turned into a true Mr Grumpypants – and if so, is Mrs Chrisparkle even more of a Mrs Grumpypants, because she’s more critical of it than me – or has everyone else been drinking from the waters of Lethe and simply lost their senses? I just couldn’t help myself from constantly checking my watch throughout the film, primarily because I was wondering, what is the point of this film and where is it going? The answer, incidentally, as we eventually find out, is the Christening of Sophie’s baby. But basically it tells us a story that we already know, and I’m afraid I didn’t find that particularly interesting. Reconfirming the original tale is like simply baking the same cake all over again. And I have to say, considering Screen 1 of the Errol Flynn was sold out, largely to all female parties who were quaffing plenty of vino, the atmosphere in the room was totally flat. No audible reactions, very few laughs, minimal “seat dancing” – just a bit reserved for Super Trouper at the finale.

Sophie and DonnaDon’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable sequences, a few laugh out loud moments, and the music is exceptionally good. In particular, the musical arrangements are superb, and the way some of the songs dovetail into the story and, especially, the setting, is really creative. Hugh Skinner as Young Harry (inspired casting) serenading Young Donna (Lily James) at a Napoleon-themed Parisian restaurant with an outrageous Waterloo routine is very funny. Jeremy Irvine, as Young Sam, singing Knowing Me Knowing You: “Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes, here is where the story ends, this is goodbye” as he sadly picks his way through the decrepit old building, is a true highlight. Young Donna singing I Have a Dream as she first encounters the old farmhouse, almost bumping into the modern-day occupants as she walks around, was also very impressive. Young Donna and Young BillLily James, again, singing my favourite Abba song The Name of the Game, as Young Sam lies in bed beside her. I’d happily watch all those performances again, although preferably as individual pop videos, rather than sit through the film once more. The boats full of partygoers arriving at the island, all singing Dancing Queen, makes for a spectacular visual image, although I did find it a little old-fashioned. I’m sure there’s a similar scene in The Song of Norway. Mrs C’s reaction was that it merely emphasised what a good song Dancing Queen is. She wasn’t so convinced by the young singers in the film, and felt that they just showed how much better Agnetha and Anna-Frid were than any of them. She wasn’t at all impressed with what she calls Lily James’ X-Factor style singing. Ouch.

Young Donna and Young SamMind you, the film started off badly for me. The first scene: New College, Oxford, 1979 (the caption told us so) and recently graduated Donna Sheridan is invited to give the valedictory address to all her newly graduated colleagues, including her two Dynamo pals, Tanya and Rosie. The setting was, clearly, New College; the girls were larking about in New College Lane; the graduates were all bedecked in their Oxford B. A. gowns (white fur – absolutely accurate), the masters all wearing gowns representing more advanced degrees. Such attention to detail. What a shame, then, that they overlooked the simple fact that 1979 was the first year that women undergraduates were admitted into most of the previously all-male colleges – and New College was among them. If Donna and all her female graduates had undertaken three-year courses then they would have gone up in 1976, when they wouldn’t have been eligible to study at New College. Did nobody realise this? Did nobody question it? As a second-year Oxford undergraduate at the time, all these extra women in town was Big News, believe me. This basic error had me tutting all the way through When I Kissed the Teacher, and prevented me from enjoying it. Even Bjorn’s uncomfortable looks at being sashayed round by the performing girls didn’t make me crack a smile.

Young DonnaI’m going to be even more controversial here. I know a lot of people found the film very moving, and I expect the scene that really did it for them was the Christening scene at the end (I’ll say no more, because I don’t want to spoil it for you). My reaction was that it was sweet, but nothing more. Mrs C’s and my pre-prepared packs of Travel Kleenexes stayed firmly in our pockets. But then, I must say, I found the constant references to the now dead Donna rather wearing. It was funny when the references were just designed to make Julie Walters’ character cry (sounds cruel, but this is Julie Walters we’re talking about, she knows precisely how to make a script work). But as the film progressed, Donna’s death, and Pierce Brosnan’s suitably morose expression because of it, just became mawkish. Maybe it would have brought a bit of a spark to the piece if they’d managed to give Harry some gay romance on the island – if you remember, he was outed at the end of the first film – but instead they have him safely dancing alongside women in the big numbers, which I think was probably an opportunity missed.

Young DynamosThe relentless tying together of the 1979 account and the 2018 account of the tale becomes tiresome. It’s fine (I think) to have Tanya just as man-hungry today as she was forty years ago, and for Rosie to be as equally unsuccessful with men now as she was then; those are true character traits. But – for example – the sheer staginess of the repetition of a “wise local” anticipating an unexpected great storm forty years later was too much for Mrs C, who shrank further down into her cinema seat with her head in her hands.

Young Harry and Young DonnaThe only real difference to the sequel element from the prequel element – and I guess you could call it progress – is the sudden unforeseen appearance of Cher as Ruby Sheridan, Sophie’s absentee grandmother, who’s never done anything to forge a bond between her and her granddaughter. She looks immaculate; Mrs C thought it was a shame that as she’d had so much Botox she couldn’t visually emote. But I rather thought that worked in an ironic way; Cher can’t show emotion, and nor can Ruby, so in one respect it’s perfect casting. And I have to say, even though I would never count myself as a Cher fan, I really enjoyed her performance of Fernando.

Harry Bill and SamThe performances are all perfectly good: Lily James looks great and has just the right amount of carefree enthusiasm for a life of adventures to be particularly convincing. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski renew their comedy double act as the two remaining Dynamos and brighten up the screen whenever they’re on. The scenes with the three young suitors are all played with a great sense of holiday romance, and did indeed flesh out (if that’s not an unwise expression) the bare bones of Donna’s fanciful flings across Europe. And there’s a fun cameo from Omid Djalili as a Greek Customs Officer – remember to stay watching right until the very end, after the credits.

DonnaBut the film didn’t move me in any way; it didn’t make me want to dance a sirtaki through the streets of Northampton, I didn’t feel anything “life-enhancing” about it, in the same way that everyone else seems to. It was just there; I watched it; it was fine; and then it finished. And now I don’t need to think about it again. For all you people who loved it, I’m jealous!

Review of the Year 2017 – The Eighth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again the world of the arts is holding its bated breath to hear the results of who has won this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has scurried away to a dark place (my study) to determine the identities of the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 14th January 2017 to 11th January 2018.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

So we start off with a slight problem. Apart from at the Edinburgh Fringe, we only saw one dance production all year. One measly production! Not that it was a measly production but only seeing one is definitely measly. For a time the Committee wondered if, for this year, the award should be temporarily withdrawn, but that didn’t seem fair. So we have compromised, and included the two dance shows we saw in Edinburgh as well as the one, non-Fringe show we saw elsewhere. At least that gives us three shows to consider, and this is how they place:

In 3rd place, the honest and daring piece for two, Together Alone, from the Taiwan Season at Dance Base at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 2nd place, Really Nice Theatre Company’s funny and acrobatic production of Two Little Boxes at Greenside at Nicolson Square, at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 1st place, for the fifth time in six years, the skilful creativity of the impeccable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six classical concerts in 2017 and they were all excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the impossible has been achieved, so they are:

In 3rd place, Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, with a brilliant programme of Italian, German and Russian music including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 played by Martin Roscoe, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 2nd place, Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, including wonderful performances of Brahms’ Symphony No 4 and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mathieu Herzog, at the Royal and Derngate, in November.

In 1st place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, a stunning performance of the Violin Concerto together with a great rendition of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Not so many contenders this year so we’ll stick with a top three:

In 3rd place, the inimitable Damian Williams starring as Mother Goose in the panto of the same name at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2018.

In 2nd place, the beautiful and hilarious combination of acts that make up the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2017.

In 1st place, the start to finish riot of near-knuckle hilarity that was Dick Whittington the panto at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw ten big-name stand-up comics this year, and I think it’s fair to say they were a varied bunch with a few disappointments. I listed a top five last year but this time a top three will suffice:

In 3rd place, the extraordinary experience of spending a late night 90 minutes in the company of the one and only Miss Whoopi Goldberg, at the London Palladium in February.

In 2nd place, the irrepressible silliness of Jimeoin in his Renonsense Man Tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, by a whisker – or maybe two, a shared award; Tez Ilyas’ Made in Britain Tour, together with his fantastic support act Guz Khan, Underground at the Royal and Derngate in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Lots of great acts with a fighting chance of winning this award, but the winner was never in doubt. From a very, very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the parody musical magic of Christian Reilly (12th May)

In 4th place, for his amazing ability to make so much off the cuff humour from an audience member throwing up, Paul Thorne (3rd November)

In 3rd place, the mischievous intelligence of Markus Birdman (3rd February)

In 2nd place, seen many times but on this occasion absolutely on fire, Robert White (3rd March)

In 1st place, a new star is born, and receiving possibly the best reception in eight years of watching Screaming Blue Murders, Daliso Chaponda (28th April)

And now, a new category; as we have seen so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award.

In 5th place, the larger than life unpredictability of Aurie Styla (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 4th place, the thought-provoking, hard-hitting material in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show Your Wrong, Phil Nichol (Comedy Crate Festival) at the Black Prince, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, the challenging, calculating material and presence of Mickey Sharma (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, a hit from the previous year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the extraordinarily personal and moving show by Richard Gadd – Monkey See, Monkey Do (Leicester Comedy Festival at The Cookie, Leicester) in February.

In 1st place, for getting on for four hours of solid hilarity, Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, and guests Kevin Dewsbury, Guz Khan and Paul McCaffrey (Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester) in February.

Best Musical.

Here’s where it gets really difficult. I saw fourteen musicals this year, mainly revivals but a few new shows as well. Competition is very fierce and some superb shows don’t get a mention. Here are the top five:

In 5th place, so good I saw it twice on consecutive days, the touring revival of the Kinks Musical Sunny Afternoon at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January.

In 4th place, the breath of fresh air with its heart absolutely in the right place, the feelgood Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the beautiful and emotional revival of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, that we saw in July.

In 2nd place, one of my favourite shows of all time, in a dynamic and exciting revival, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre Olivier, in September.

In 1st place, with incredible impact and maybe because I’ve never seen it before, and it really took my breath away, the revival of Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 21 new plays this year, and only a handful of them disappointed. So this is an extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top five from a shortlist of ten:

In 5th place, the funny and sad life laundry drama, The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, how to make a riveting play out of dry subject matter, Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the gripping and exciting thriller based in 1980s Northern Ireland, The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre, London, in December.

In 2nd place, the emotional turmoil of The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, the extraordinary combination of political intrigue and carefree humour that forms both parts of the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, in December.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw twenty revivals, almost all of which were worthy of consideration. Nine made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the high energy testosterone-fest that is Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre, in November.

In 4th place, a feat of great stamina and a beautiful revival, The Norman Conquests at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

In 3rd place, the vividly re-imagined and exciting new production of Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.

In 2nd place, the spellbinding new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.

In 1st place, the production I’d been looking forward to all year and it was every bit as remarkable as one would have hoped, King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that missed the mark the most was the Royal and Derngate’s confused production of The Grapes of Wrath in May.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 17 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the eerie and suspenseful psychological thriller Black Mountain produced by Paines Plough (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

In 4th place, the totally convincing portrayal of a relationship irreconcilably broken down with the snappy title The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, written by Rosalind Blessed (Studio @ Space Triplex)

In 3rd place, the thought-provoking and opinion changing Bin Laden: The One Man Show produced by Knaive Theatre (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, the riveting Gypsy Queen, written by Rob Ward (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)

In 1st place, the play that taps into the Zeitgeist and doesn’t feel like a play, the horrifying, hilarious and brain-teasing Losers, produced by Tit4Twat Theatre (Underbelly, Cowgate)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

One of the hardest categories to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Rosalind Blessed for The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People (Studio @ Space Triplex)
In 2nd place, Rob Ward for Gypsy Queen (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)
In 1st place, Sam Redway for Bin Laden: The One Man Show (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Eleven shows and a shortlist of five gives this top three (which is very similar to last year’s!):

In 3rd place, for his intelligent observations and creative thinking, Dane Baptiste’s G. O. D. show (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, for getting the political climate fully understood, with I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative, Joe Wells (Sneaky Pete’s)
In 1st place, yet again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Yet another really hard choice but I’ve managed to come up with a top five:

In 5th place, the superbly constructed and brilliantly characterised Bitchelors with Anna Morris (Voodoo Rooms)
In 4th place, dropping down a place from last year but still incredibly funny and audience members really have to be alert to stay safe! Foil Arms and Hog – Oink! (Underbelly George Square)
In 3rd place, the very racey acts – including the unforgettable Betty Grumble – that made up the burlesque extravaganza, Sweatshop (Assembly George Square Gardens)
In 2nd place, as last year, worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Macbeth with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, the brilliant material and voices of Jan Ravens in her Difficult Woman show (Gilded Balloon Teviot)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so clever-clever and up itself that you could hardly see it, was the pretentious immersive show about throwing a surprise party, Party Game.

Best Local Production

This includes the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Can’t Stop Theatre’s untitled one-man play with Ben Sullivan
In 4th place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Great Expectations at the Royal Theatre
In 3rd place, Milton Keynes College’s National Theatre Connections production of Extremism
In 2nd place, the University’s production of Vinegar Tom at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, again from the Flash Festival, Out of Mind Theatre Company’s production of Broken

Best film

I saw seven films last year, which must be some kind of record! Two films that have received great general acclaim I really didn’t like at all – Manchester By The Sea and Blade Runner 2049. The Snowman just about limped home, both La La Land and Victoria and Abdul were entertaining and beautifully made, and Call Me By Your Name really ought to get the award for being outstanding in so many ways. However, the film I enjoyed the most and have no hesitation in naming as the recipient of this year’s award is – Paddington 2!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Fifteen contenders in the shortlist, so here are the top five:

In 5th place, Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.
In 4th place, Lucie Jones as Elle in Legally Blonde at the Royal and Derngate in October.
In 3rd place, Sooha Kim as Kim in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, Janie Dee as Phyllis in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.
In 1st place, Imelda Staunton as Sally in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Seven performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Red Concepcion as The Engineer in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, John McCrea as Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.
In 1st place, John Partridge as Albin/Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles at the Milton Keynes Theatre in August.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Eight in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Samantha Spiro as Peppy in The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.
In 4th place, Eve Best as Olivia in Love in Idleness, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.
In 3rd place, Zoe Waites as Cassius in Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.
In 2nd place, Imelda Staunton as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.
In 1st place, Olivia Colman as Jenny in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre Dorfman, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

A very hotly fought for award, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ben Turner as Amir in The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.
In 4th place, Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie in Oslo, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.
In 3rd place, Adrian Scarborough as Stan in Don Juan in Soho, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear in King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford in December.

Theatre of the Year.

For the third year running there’s no change in the Number one and Number two theatres! Presenting an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year, and I’ve seen more productions this year than I’ve ever seen in one year before – 190 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2018!

Review – Paddington 2, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 24th November 2017

Paddington 2It’s 9pm on a Friday. You’ve had a pre-prandial G&T, you’ve enjoyed your dinner; you want a little pre-weekend escapism and a good laugh. Bottle of Malbec and two glasses in hand, we took our seats at the plush Errol Flynn Filmhouse, along with 89 other adults and one child, bless her. You can keep your Blade Runners and your Star Wars…. Paddington 2 is just sheer joy from start to finish.

Paddington the bear himselfI should point out that we didn’t see the original Paddington film three years ago, but my guess is that you don’t have to have seen the first to be able to appreciate any subtle nuances of the second. The story is relatively slight, but bear with me (geddit?) Paddington is searching for a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy because she brought him up well and he’s a decent, kind-hearted animal. He finds the perfect item in an antiques shop – an old pop-up book of London scenes. Paddington falls in love with it. But the price! Where’s he going to get £500 from? So he vows to work for the money and save it.

BuchananSo far so good. Being a trusting and honest bear, he lets slip to Phoenix Buchanan, a narcissistic actor who opens the local carnival, that he’s saving for this book. Unbeknownst to Paddington, Buchanan is also after this book and he decides to steal it from the shop. Paddington is on the scene in no time and runs after the thief – Buchanan in disguise – to catch him. Unfortunately, Buchanan gives him the slip and it is Paddington whom the police arrest and who is sent to prison in one of the greatest legal travesties in the annals of justice. But, as it’s Paddington, everything turns out alright in the end!

Paddington the window cleanerThis is simply one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. The blend of animation and reality is just perfect. Take the whole hairdresser shop scene as a typical example of its brilliance. When the inexperienced Paddington clings hold of the barber’s erratically over-powered electric razor for dear life, the sight of the rippling, fluttering fur caused by the vibrations brings the house down. The computer that creates Paddington definitely has a grand sense of humour.

paddington 2 palsThere’s a star-studded cast that most other film makers would die for, and a few absolutely brilliant performances. Hugh Grant camps it up out of all proportion as the despicable Buchanan, in a hilarious assortment of disguises, no greater moment than in the finale (don’t leave at the beginning of the credits, whatever you do) when he gets his chance to present a showstopper (choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, I noticed). You’ll never think of FolliesRain on the Roof in the same way again. Hugh Bonneville, as Mr Brown, is also fantastic as he blunders from situation to situation, such as when he badmouths the other prisoners whilst they can still hear him, or when he’s caught red-handed breaking and entering Buchanan’s house. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the intimidating inmate Knuckles, who, it turns out, has a heart of gold after all.

The BrownsDelightful vignettes are scattered through the film, with Jessica Hynes, Ben Miller, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Richard Ayoade, Tom Davis, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley and many more taking tiny roles that just keep the whole thing constantly topped-up with surprise and enjoyment. Giving the bears a voice, there are vocal contributions by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy, and a star performance from Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington; the epitome of decorum and politeness, honesty and decency – but not without a dash of daftness and a measure of mischief. Paul King and Simon Furnaby’s screenplay is marmalade-packed with visual humour and funny lines, including some great set pieces like the barber’s scene, Paddington’s laundry mishap and the steam train chase.

Paddington in the pinkDon’t think you have to have kids to go and see and enjoy this film. It appeals to the child in all of us – and also, in part, to the naughty grown-up as well. We were still laughing about this film 48 hours later. No wonder it’s proving to be a box-office hit. This’ll come back again and again to entertain us during Christmases Future for decades to come. A pure delight!

Review – The Snowman, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st November 2017

The SnowmanNothing to do with Raymond Briggs or choirboys singing Walking in the Air, this Snowman is a lot more lethal. Based on Jo Nesbø’s book of the same name, it features his detective Harry Hole as he investigates a series of murders where the killer always leaves a calling card in the form of a snowman. A real one, built from snow, with two sticky twigs as arms. Unsurprisingly, he tends to rest during the summer months.

Michael FassbenderConfession time – but I sense I might not be alone here – I’ve neither heard of Harry Hole nor of Jo Nesbø, and had no idea that he was like the Norwegian version of Inspector Morse. I only decided to book for this film because I saw the trailer at an earlier visit to the cinema and it looked gripping. I also had no idea that it had been universally panned by the critics, with reviews that include “a mystery that feels as mashed together and perishable as its title” and “a leaden, clotted, exasperating mess”. High praise indeed.

Michael Fassbender and Charlotte GainsbourgI have to say, I think they’re rather harsh comments, because, on the whole, we enjoyed the film. In its favour: first, the excellent cinematography, with those enigmatic, snowy, mountainous wastes of Norway looming gloomily in the distance. I’ve never been to Oslo, but I have had the experience of visiting Tromso and the generally depressing Norwegian urban scenes in the film largely reflected my memory of that miserable city. Second, the suspense: about fifteen minutes into the film, a lady is sitting reading in bed and you suddenly hear a snowball being thrown at her bedroom window. Mrs Chrisparkle jolted with shock so much she almost knocked the Pinot Grigio out of the man’s hand sitting next to her. That’s how suspenseful it is. Third, the opening ten minutes or so plunge you instantly into the story, ending with a very strong visual image that I think I will remember for a long time!

Rebecca FergusonIn its disfavour, and it very nearly ruined it completely for me: in the final reel, as it were, there’s Harry Hole, injured and unable to move, prostrate on the floor, with the killer lumbering up to him ready to deal the final blow that will send him to the land of Old Norse. Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Harry survives the ordeal – after all he features in another four books after this one so that’s in the public domain – but the reason the killer fails to silence him forever? Risible. And pathetic. And nonsensical. I’ll say no more.

Chloe SevignyOverall it’s a decent whodunit, but as the film progresses, the identity of the killer becomes more and more apparent (well it did to me, at least.) The killer is fairly obviously the boy in the first scenes, now grown up to be a man. There are three characters who might most likely be that person. One gets murdered halfway through, and another is seen to be somewhere else when the next murder takes place – and, lo and behold, that third person does indeed turn out to be the killer. Ah well, sometimes it’s satisfying to guess right.

J K SimmonsI enjoyed Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole; he’s low key and somewhat dour, but then, he is playing a Norwegian. Reading up on Harry’s characteristics in the books and on a synopsis of the novel, I’d say it was a pretty good interpretation of the role; the chain-smoking and alcoholism are certainly clear. Having said that, there are huge, interesting-sounding aspects of the original book that are nowhere near touched on in the screenplay – an opportunity missed, methinks. Rebecca Ferguson is convincing as Katrine, the detective who’s been brought in alongside Hole to keep him in check; Charlotte Gainsbourg is authoritative and serious as Harry’s ex, Rakel; and there are a few surprising cameos in the supporting cast, including Toby Jones as a police investigator and Anne Reid, would you believe, as a nosey neighbour. Plus there’s a very rough looking Val Kilmer as a now dead detective, frequently returning to interrupt the flow of the investigation. He also just so happens to be Katrine’s dad. Curious.

Val KilmerHow come no one ever saw the killer building the snowmen outside his victims’ houses? I think it must be asked. And how on earth did he manage to shape a snowman on the roof of a car? The cops need to focus their investigation on a man with his own stepladder and mittens. Despite all its shortcomings, I still found it entertaining enough to stay awake (that, gentle reader, is something one should never take for granted) and I generally enjoyed it in the way, I think, that the creative team wanted me to – in other words, taking it seriously and not taking the mick. I do sense though that this is a film that is going to sink without trace in the annals of movie history.

P. S. If you’ve always wanted to hear the Norwegian version of Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, your prayers are answered.

Review – Blade Runner 2049, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 10th November 2017

Blade RunnerI saw the original Blade Runner many, many moons ago. I have a faint memory that I enjoyed it, but I can’t pretend to remember much about it. My friend Lord Liverpool who knows about these things said that he’d seen the new sequel Blade Runner 2049 and described it as a worthy successor to the original. Thus it was that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Mr and Mrs Flying-the-Flag, checked into the Errol Flynn last Friday night to judge for ourselves.

Blade Runner 2049I think there must be such a thing as a Sci-Fi brain. Sadly, I’m not possessed of one. I wish I were, as it would open up a whole new world of literature and entertainment. It would be great to appreciate the comings and goings of Spurgs from the planet Tharg and such like. I don’t think Mrs C, or Mr & Mrs Flag have one either, as after two and half hours of sheer befuddlement we all emerged into the night air with one common question; “what the friggin’ hell was all that about then?” To be fair, Mrs C and Mrs F never had the remotest chance of following it, as they both spent the majority of the film comatose in the land of Nod. Mr F tried to be upbeat about it by saying, “well at least we found out who the father and daughter were”, to which they both replied, “there was a father and daughter?”

Ryan Gosling as KIt’s a shame, because I sense this is probably quite a good film, if only you can fathom out what’s going on. I think it needs to be issued with a set of students’ notes, and then we could sit a test after each sequence to make sure we understood it, with the option of taking a resit before continuing if we’re still confused.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049There were aspects that I did enjoy. I loved the whole notion of the artificial girlfriend; beautiful, supportive, a great cook – she’s a chauvinist’s dream. Visually, the whole film is very engrossing, and that’s why Mr Flag and I kinda enjoyed it, even though we didn’t have a scooby what it meant. I couldn’t quite work out why everything had to take place against a background of virtual tsunami, when they could just have easily done it on a beach – everything was “virtual” anyway, as far as I could make out, so choose a nice location, why don’t you. There were other aspects I didn’t enjoy. I have a low threshold to violence and it was too violent for my taste. There was a nice girl in white, who suddenly became a horrid, vicious girl in black. Wasn’t sure what that was about.

I can’t really say anything more about it, because I just didn’t get it. You’ll probably love it. Good luck to you.

Review – Call Me By Your Name, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 8th November 2017

CMBYNposterWhilst recently on holiday I noticed my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford lamenting online that no cinema in his home town was showing Call Me By Your Name, and that he really (really, really) wanted to see it. It occurred to me that Trip Advisor’s #1 for Northampton Fun and Games, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, might come up trumps on this one. And I was right. A quick check of the calendar and I saw that we could fit in a midweek matinee easy-peasy.

CMBYN1It’s very impressive how the Errol Flynn has espoused what seems to me the ever-growing range of LGBTQ films. Last month they held a Q-Film Weekender mini-festival with a selection of twelve features, previews, short films and animations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. And every month they have a special screening in association with Q-Film. Trailblazers indeed! Although Call Me By Your Name definitely comes under the LGBTQ film umbrella, its appeal is universal; a coming-of-age movie where a young person forges their way into adulthood, whichever path they take. We were all teenagers with raging hormones at one point; it’s a time we can all remember and empathise with. I for one am very glad to be a grown-up!

CMBYN2It’s 1983, and 17-year-old Elio lives part of the year with his rather trendy, arty parents in northern Italy, in what appears to be an idyllic lifestyle of constant sunshine, swimming, cycling, lovely Italian food, beautiful countryside and plenty of local girls on tap should he wish to try his luck. Into their lives arrives Oliver, a student intern come to assist Elio’s father who’s a professor of Greco-Roman culture. Oliver’s a strapping chap, quite a lot older than Elio, with attractive self-confidence and definite personal charisma. Elio’s attracted to him from the start; but it’s impossible to tell whether Oliver feels the same way, and their friendship remains chaste for some time before physical attraction just begins to get too much to ignore. Will their developing relationship have a chance of lasting? How long will it remain a secret? How accepting will Elio’s family and the wider community be? You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

In every sense you can imagine, this film reaches out and affects you. The cinematography is stunning, your eyes dwelling on majestic landscapes, and a privileged lifestyle. You can smell the fresh fish, the Mediterranean fruits, the rustic wines. The soundtrack is perfect, featuring evocative guitar and vocals by Sufjan Stevens, and dramatic piano works nicked from the back catalogues of Ravel and Satie. In fact, the combination of the dramatic piano, idyllic country life and a young man growing up strongly reminded me of one of my all-time favourite films, The Go-Between; although long-term I think Elio will grow up to be far better adjusted than Leo could ever hope.

CMBYN3The screenplay is by that master of decorum and decency James Ivory, and is predictably elegant and beautifully character-driven. In these awful Brexit days, it feels sophisticated, forward thinking and tolerant to have a screenplay switching effortlessly between English, Italian and French. I loved the attention to detail, and those lingering moments on the seemingly irrelevant, all of which contribute to an overwhelming build-up of emotion: like when Elio and Oliver on a bike ride ask an elderly contadina for a drink of water, or when we simply observe two pairs of swimming shorts drying over the same bath. There’s a startling scene when Italian guests come for dinner and argue animatedly over the merits of the films of Buñuel – it bears no significance on the story at all, yet it’s great to watch. I also loved how some things simply aren’t explained. At one stage Oliver asks Elio to forgive him, hoping that he doesn’t think the worse of him – but what for? In another scene Elio walks into the bedroom to find that the two beds had been pushed together. By whom? Many of their more intimate moments are only suggested, rather than clearly portrayed, and I rather liked the fact that the film gives Elio and Oliver their own privacy. Those details are nobody’s business but theirs.

CMBYN4The film benefits from some brilliant performances, none better than Timothée Chalamet as Elio, perfectly capturing that pretending-not-to-care quality that is the hallmark of a true teenager. To be fair, his characterisation is of a young man who’s more bold than bashful, which creates a strong awkward tension in his dealings with Armie Hammer’s Oliver, who brilliantly portrays someone persistently attempting to keep a tight rein on their feelings. There’s excellent support by Esther Garrel as local girl Marzia who would love a relationship with Elio, and in many ways he’d love one with her too. Amira Casar is excellent as Elio’s mother Annella, deeply attached to her son and wanting only the best for him, but betraying an uncertainty as to whether what’s happening is right. Best of all, Michael Stuhlbarg gives a really strong performance as Elio’s father Lyle, subtly steering him in the direction in which Elio will most likely find out about himself. There’s a truly beautiful father-and-son scene towards the end of the film which would tug at the strings of the hardest of hearts; the gentle sobbing sounds emitting from my pal in the next seat told their own story – in fact, read his account of the film here, because he gets and explains the emotions of the film in a more poignant and lucid way than I ever could.

CMBYN5Discussing the film afterwards, HRH said he’d hoped the film would have a happy ending. In my opinion, it’s not that unhappy an ending. True, the last scene, against which the final credits play out, features Elio crying with more and more passion. But those tears have a very eloquent tale to tell. At first, he’s crying through sheer sadness. Then you can sense an element of remorse, maybe regret. After a while they’re tears of defiance, as you realise he’s going to proudly bear whatever scars the experience will leave him with. At the end they’re tears of gratitude for the happy memories he will keep forever.

An excellent film, with something for everyone, as they say. If, like the Buzzcocks, you’ve ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with, this is the film for you. And that’s everyone, right? Moving, charming, elegant, and all done in the best possible taste.

P. S. No peaches were harmed during the making of this film. Well, maybe one. But it’s very, VERY quickly over. Elio may need to work on his technique.

Review – Victoria and Abdul, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 25th September 2017

VAA PosterHere’s a film that combines two of my favourite things – Dame Judi Dench and India. Based on a true story – with a lot of licence I suspect – the ageing and grumpy Queen Victoria attends a banquet at which she is presented with a mohar – a ceremonial seal – by two Indian servants imported from Agra. Protocol required that no one – especially lowly Indian servants – should look the queen in the eye, but one of them, Abdul Karim, is more daring; he and the queen exchange glances, and, lo and behold, the queen rather liked it.

VAA Victoria and AbdulAn unusual friendship develops between the queen and Abdul over many years and she employs him as her teacher, or Munshi. Under his guidance, she develops her understanding of India, its culture and its languages. Her preference for him puts a lot of noses out of joint, not least that of son and heir Dirty Bertie. But Victoria reigns supreme, and despite their differences, Abdul stays with her until her dying day.

VAA VictoriaOn reflection, it’s not that unusual a friendship, given what Judi Dench got up to with Billy Connolly following the death of Prince Albert. Victoria and Abdul can very much be seen as a sequel to Mrs Brown, and the characters of Sir Henry Ponsonby, Lady Churchill, and of course Bertie appear in both films. In the earlier film, the queen took some solace in the company of her Scottish servant, John Brown. He died in 1883, and the action of Victoria and Abdul begins four years later. She obviously had a thing for hairy, non-English types.

VAA Abdul and VictoriaI found this a thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly funny, charming and sensitive film. It gets a little sentimental towards the end of Victoria’s life – but that sentimentality is quickly snuffed out after her death. I’ve read two criticisms of the film; one that it’s a whitewash of the ruthless barbarism of the Raj days, and another that the character of Abdul is simply too servile and two-dimensional. I disagree with both. The film is very much seen through Victoria’s eyes and she lived a cossetted life protected by all her advisers. She had little knowledge of what was taking place in India – indeed, she never went there. Certainly there was ruthless barbarism – constantly brought to the fore by the character of Mohammed, who never misses an opportunity to criticise anything British. Bertie’s personal promise that Mohammed will die in pain proves that the barbarism went right to the top.

VAA V&AAs for Abdul being over-servile; put yourself in his place. A 24-year-old man who has already achieved a position of some responsibility (as he sees it) by writing down the names of prisoners at Agra jail, is suddenly jettisoned into close proximity with the Empress of India. He was starstruck. When Victoria asks him why should she keep going, he simply replies, “service”. Abdul is the prime exponent of the art of service. If you go to a grand hotel in India today you will be overwhelmed at the magnificence of the service. I thought the presentation of Abdul was completely believable.

VAA the household revoltsDame Judi Dench is as immaculate in the role as you would imagine – allowing us to see Victoria’s warmer side, whilst still of course holding on grimly to her supreme power. She’s hilarious in the early scenes where we observe Victoria’s table habits, and she’s delightfully bossy with her toadying officials and even more tedious family. She really conveys Victoria’s adventurous spirit and hunger for knowledge – and her kind respect for all things Indian really appeals to an Indophile like me! Ali Fazal brings huge calmness and serenity to the role of Abdul, nicely bringing out the humour of his unusual and awkward position, and totally convincing as a teacher.

VAA Sir HenryThere are some excellent supporting performances too – Eddie Izzard’s menacing Bertie is a true horror, clearly desperate for power and he doesn’t care who he treads on to get it. In his final film, Tim Pigott-Smith gives a great portrayal of the private secretary Sir Henry, assuming to know better than Her Majesty until she insists on his giving way, when he turns into a naughty schoolboy who’s been found out. Paul Higgins plays the ungracious and belligerent Dr Reid, superbly bringing out all the character’s resentment, and there’s a quietly hilarious performance by Adeel Akhtar as the vitriolic Mohammed. The subtitled scenes between Abdul and Mohammed, with all the indiscreet backchat, are a delight.

VAA BertieIf you want to see a film that shows the harsh realities of the British occupation of India, go see something else. If you want a feelgood movie about an unlikely friendship, with pompous people being taken down a peg or two, this is the one for you.