Eurovision Song Contest, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 13th May 2017

Celebrate DiversityThis was indeed the 62nd annual Eurovision Song Contest and I’ve been waving them on, man and boy, ever since the 12th. Fifty years of Eurovision… I should be entitled to a medal. Well, forty-nine really, as the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me on holiday to Cyprus during Eurovision week in 1974, much to my frustration; in those days I didn’t have the ability to record the show, so it all passed me by. Did anyone famous win that year?

ErrolYou may have been forgiven, gentle reader, for thinking that this year’s Euroshindig took place in Kyiv, Ukraine. Not a bit of it. The real action was at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton. Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with Lord and Lady Prosecco, Mr and Mrs Jolly-Japester and Northampton’s own Mr Flying-the-Flag (and Mrs Flag) were in attendance. The sumptuous and (almost) new Screen 2 played host to another evening of wine, women, song, political intrigue, scandal, dubious taste, and snacks.

Helen BlabyAmong those women was BBC Radio Northampton’s very own Helen Blaby, all bedecked in sparkly sequins. She hosted the evening for us, judging the Fancy Dress contest (the three French girls won) and acting as the Jon Ola Sand of the East Midlands in ensuring our voting procedure took place fair and square. No embarrassing “can we please have your votes;” “I don’t have it” moments for us; although they did run out of Velcro.

julia samoilovaSomeone who didn’t win the Fancy Dress contest was a gentleman in a wheelchair, who said he’d come as Julia from Russia. Nice mickey-taking indeed, although he didn’t get her hair right. You’ll know that wheelchair-using Julia was refused entry into Ukraine by the state officials as she had previously performed at a concert in Crimea without permission – and Ukrainian law states that she could not enter the country as a result. The EBU, who run Eurovision, have no power to override a country’s laws but they were disappointed at Ukraine’s stance. All a ploy by Russia, of course, to make Ukraine look bad; in an attempt to make her performance possible, it was suggested she could perform by satellite from Moscow, but that was dismissed outright by the Russians. Therefore, no Russia this year. In an act of extreme contrition, on the evening of the semi-final where Julia would otherwise have been competing in the ESC, she attended another concert instead – in Crimea. Honestly it’s like putting the Krym in criminal. Julia is already nominated as Russia’s performer for the 2018 contest in Lisbon. Let’s hope she tries to sing the same song and is disqualified on the grounds that it was published before 1st September 2017. As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve no sympathy with Russia on this issue. They should have thought about it before aggressively invading another country.

Moldova SunstrokeThe Errol is a great place to see the contest – it’s so comfortable, with a great sound system, and a great selection of food and drink. We even have our own hashtag – #Errolvision. I love the fact that you can take a proper bottle of wine into the cinema with you. No plastic cups, no trashy junk; it treats you like an adult. For the Eurovision, they do the usual game of “let’s bring out some appropriate food and drink for some of the countries” – so we were treated to (if I remember rightly) falafels for Israel, Babybels for Netherlands, Pinot Grigio (chilled individual bottles) for Italy, Fish ‘n’ Chip flavoured snacks for the UK, Black Forest Gateau for Germany, tzatziki for Greece; there may have been more. And, as hinted earlier on, we also have our own voting procedure where everybody has a douze points sticker and a nul points sticker and they award them to whichever countries they like and dislike most. My douze = Italy; my nul = Croatia; Mrs C’s douze = Germany; her nul = Ukraine (I think). But overall – and this will amuse you gentle reader if you know how this year’s results fell – the Errolvision winner was Moldova (gasp!) and the loser was Portugal (gasp, gasp!)

Francesco GabbaniWhat of the songs themselves? We started with Israel, who got us off to a great start with a song I really like. Mrs Flag said that IMRI of Israel looks just like me. I will love her forever for that remark. Poland and Belarus followed, to no great interest, then Austria, with Nathan sitting on the moon (not the only incident of mooning that night). Armenia – still don’t get it; Netherlands – still too many harmonies; then Moldova and finally we all had something uptempo and flashy to get our teeth into – I’m sure it inspired many episodes of epic sax later that night. Hungary – still sounds morose, then my favourite Italy, which I willed on to do really well and win but… in the end, it just didn’t somehow. There hasn’t been a more obvious runaway winner than Francesco since Alexander Rybak in 2009; so how come it didn’t win? Great tune, clever lyrics, engaging performer, and the naked ape isn’t an out-and-out gimmick, he features in the song. Although making him wear a rainbow bow-tie was silly. That means he wasn’t naked anymore – and that’s just the point.

Jacques HoudekDenmark came and went and then it was Portugal, that slow burner that would either do incredibly well or fade away into obscurity. Salvador’s eccentric delivery made a few people laugh in the Errol, and once they realised it wasn’t going to go uptempo, most people just talked through it. Not what the typical Brit thinks is a typical Eurovision song, therefore they weren’t going to show any interest in it. Did they learn nothing from Jamala? Apparently not. Azerbaijan created some scornful cackling at the horse’s head. As for Jacques from Croatia, the Errol audience burst into hysterical laughter at the pompous and ludicrous delivery of the Z-lister from Zagreb, the homophobe from Hrvatska. Many of them voted for it, thinking it was a comedy number.

Lucie JonesAustralia, Greece, Spain and Norway all came, all went and there wasn’t a lot of interest – apart from the one Australian member of the audience who of course HAD to come down to the front whilst Isaiah was on and wave his wallaby at us. Then it was the UK – and we are of course pre-programmed to hope and expect the best and demand that the rest of Europe will respectfully acknowledge our national superiority and festoon us with high scores. Lucie, as we knew she would, performed brilliantly; I think she heightened expectation by having perfected a superb delivery of that song which made us all forget that the song itself is, basically, quite forgettable; and clearly that’s what the majority of the televoters thought too. Not so bad from the juries though, and it’s always a shame to see your country slowly and inexorably drift back to the right hand side of the screen.

Ilinca and AlexCyprus: yes okay; then Romania; and the Errol was soon filled with voices reflecting the lilting sound of rapping yodel. We all enjoyed that one. Germany did really well (IMHO), Ukraine had a shocker of a song, Belgium stood like a Brussels sprout left out in the rain, Sweden went on despite saying he couldn’t, Kristian from Bulgaria gave us an absolute belter, and everyone ignored France because by that stage you’re just adding up and working out your votes.

Jamala and the MoonA bright spark in an Australian flag decided to brighten up proceedings whilst Jamala was performing yet another dirge by jumping up on to her podium and revealing his arse to 200 million people. Jamala was a trooper, she didn’t flinch one moment. I expect she’s seen better before. Still at least she got a visual souvenir of the arseholes she sings about in her song 1944. Turns out he wasn’t a drunken Aussie, but a regular Ukrainian prankster by the name of Vitalii Sediuk, and he might be facing a fine or up to five years behind bars, according to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, who goes by the name of Arsen Avakov (you couldn’t make it up).

Salvador SobralPortugal won, massively; with Bulgaria in second place and Moldova in third. Portugal’s first win since they started competing in 1964 has been met with pretty much universal approval, even though there are still plenty of people who Just Don’t Get The Song. Not only Portugal’s first win but the best ever placing for the top three countries; and the winning song is the first to be written exclusively by a woman/women – so maybe they did end up celebrating diversity after all. Salvador peed a number of people off by using his winner’s speech to denigrate throw-away pop, and on reflection I think he spoke out of turn. Maybe if he’d spent longer in the ESC bubble he might have realised how some people would have taken it the wrong way. Still, there’s no disguising his success – and his big reception on return to Lisbon airport proves his current popularity.

keep-calm-and-welcome-to-lisbon-6Mrs Chrisparkle and I had made a secret pact that if either Italy or Portugal won we would almost certainly go to see the show there next year. It will have been three years since the sea of fans in the auditorium in Vienna parted to make way for Mans Zelmerlow to walk through and we were almost trampled to death by big blokes being forced on top of us; just about enough time to forget the pain and fear and endure it all again. Till then, hope you had a great Eurovision season, and don’t get too upset with the Post Eurovision Depression – plans for next year are already afoot!

P. S. I had Portugal at 11/1 win and Moldova at 100/1 each way, and combined with a few little bets about which countries would qualify, that meant I scored a £200 win from those nice people at Skybet!

Review – Manchester By The Sea, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 30th January 2017

manchester_by_the_seaWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to Paris in December, posters for Manchester By The Sea were all over the Metro, and I confess they got me intrigued. I didn’t know Manchester by the Sea was a real place, in Massachusetts (population 5,136 in the 2010 census). I thought maybe it might be about some tough Northerners relocating to a beach environment to escape the stresses and strains of the gritty urban cityscape. In Australia, I expect they think it means a coastal retail outlet where they sell sheets. Both wrong.

mtbs1The late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, when in an adventurous mood, once did a tour of “New England in the Fall”. This included a visit to Boston, which she enjoyed, but summed it up with a comment that I’ve never forgotten, that it’s so miserable there in winter that they have a huge spike in the number of suicides. I always thought that must be typical maternal exaggeration, but now I’ve seen the film of Manchester by the Sea (30 miles from Boston) I completely get it. Even though it’s won many accolades, gained critical acclaim and been a box office success, it’s simply one of the most miserable films I’ve ever seen.

mtbs6It’s the story of Lee, struggling to cope with the horror of having caused a house fire that killed his three children; Randi, his wife, and/or ex-wife, who blames him and also has to come to terms with how to face the future; and 16-year-old Patrick, his nephew, who has just lost his father, and faces the dubious prospect of having Uncle Lee as his guardian. If you want to see how they interact and how they cope with their various situations, you’ll have to watch the film. But, a word of warning: there is precious little light and shade. It’s all shade. I gave one small chuckle. Once. Misery is piled on top of moroseness, which is on top of suffering, on top of despair.

mtbs2Of course I understand why Lee would be so unhappy. His life is ruined, he cares for nothing any more, he exists, only because a suicide attempt failed. And if this film set out to portray the association of three unhappy lives who are consistently unable to put their unhappiness behind them, then it’s extremely successful. But that’s almost an academic exercise. It doesn’t reward the viewer with anything other than a sense of mission accomplished, or misery for misery’s sake. In fact, when Lee’s dead children come back at the end as a mental reaction to his leaving a frying pan on the hob, I wondered if there was any cliché to which it wouldn’t stoop.

mtbs5Many of the film’s scenes are in flashback, and I wasn’t 100% certain who all the characters were and why they were facing their predicament until a good hour into the film. As a result, I interpreted (wrongly I think) the characterisation of Lee as not so much someone who has had all the emotion battered out of them, but as someone with autism. Casey Affleck superbly conveys that inability to connect, to interpret something figuratively, to see things from another point of view, to solve issues without aggression. But I don’t think he is meant to be autistic, I think it’s a coincidence. That’s just Mr Affleck’s way of portraying someone who’s an empty shell.

mtbs4The acting is all excellent, but none of the characters is particularly likeable – well maybe C J Wilson’s George, but he’s very peripheral. I felt sorry for the characters but I never emotionally engaged with them. I was very nearly bored by the film – but not quite; I think I kept hanging on for something nice to happen to any of these people. It didn’t.

mtbs3It’s at least 30 minutes too long – I have to fight the cynic in me who thinks it’s about two and a quarter hours too long. Mrs C hated it much more than me, I should add – I remember her using the words mawkish, claptrap and self-indulgent. When it was over, the packed house at the Errol Flynn was deathly quiet – I think I heard one man just say “oh.” On the way out I overheard two ladies comparing at which point in the film they fell asleep. A perfect example of Macbeth’s tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I’ve read the reviews praising it to the hilt – and I just don’t get it. For me, this is an elegant, well-produced, attractive void.

Review – La La Land, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 16th January 2017

la_la_land_filmI was trying hard to think – when was the last time I saw a film that was a) a musical, b) wasn’t based on an already existing stage musical and c) wasn’t animation. I think it must be decades – if ever. La La Land hits our cinema screens with an already massive reputation, winning seven Golden Globes and currently nominated for eleven BAFTAs. People are flocking to it – after all, it offers very different fare from your usual superhero/Star Wars/blockbuster fodder. As at 17th January, it had grossed a worldwide box office of $133.9 million. Its impact is pretty immense.

LLL1There used to be an active Facebook group (I think it’s dormant now) based on the premise that “wouldn’t life be great if it was like a musical”. You’d wake up every day and think Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, if you were looking for the perfect girl or boy in your life you’d ask Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match, when you met for the first time they’d be a Stranger in Paradise, when everything went perfectly you could have danced all night, when you looked for inner strength, you’d Climb Every Mountain, when you gambled you’d hope luck be a lady, in the evening you’d look at that Old Devil Moon… well you get my drift.

lll2In its opening sequence, La La Land converts that fantasy into reality. Hundreds of cars stuck on the freeway, going nowhere. We’ve all been there. We turn off our engines, fiddle with the radios, argue with our families, try to get a few minutes shut-eye. We text our mates, saying “we’re going to be late”. We regret not coming off at the previous exit. We check our watch every 45 seconds. That’s not the way to do it! How fantastic it would be to live in La La Land instead. Leap out of your car, salsa over your bonnet and knock out a show tune in tandem with a hundred other drivers, dancing together as though you’ve rehearsed it for months. That opening number, Another Day of Sun, with its hopes, dreams and aspirations, some genuine, some ironic, is pure American Dream in all its glory. I could feel the smile breaking out over my face as I drank it all in. It just takes seconds of watching something like that to brighten your mood and it really worked for me.

lll3From the broad brush of that opening scene to the minutiae of the rest of the story, the film never quite recaptures that magic, although it tries very hard and still delivers an enjoyable yarn. It’s totally music driven, as opposed to plot driven, and from this perspective is very successful. When Emma Stone’s Mia confesses to Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian that she doesn’t like jazz, I was with her 100%. For the most part, I find jazz immensely tedious. I’ve always hated the way “gifted” jazz musicians tamper with the tune and play around it rather than play it. It’s self-indulgent, show-offish and, at worst, pure w*nk. (Apologies for the language.) Sebastian explains the creativity of the genre and insists she simply hasn’t properly heard it. And by the end of the film – or indeed a few minutes later to be honest – she’s a convert. And, I kid you not, gentle reader – I think I am too. This film has done the impossible. I absolutely adored the music all the way through. Even though there wasn’t a stand out tune (to my ears at any rate) it all washed over me and… OMG… I like jazz…

lll4Mandy Moore’s choreography, however, is a slightly different matter. Although it fitted well against the rhythms and the style of the music, I found it quite dated. So much so, in fact, that I wondered if we had somehow regressed to an earlier era. No – they’re using smartphones. Was the choreography meant to tip an appreciative nod to the days when musical films were all the rage as a kind of in-joke? Or maybe it was meant to reflect the rather non-contemporary interests of the protagonists – going to see a showing of Rebel Without a Cause isn’t particularly 2017 after all. Still – after that really modern dance content in the opening scene, the rest of the choreography felt kind of irrelevant to me – it was just an accompaniment to the words and music rather than a driving force telling its own story.

lll5The next two paragraphs really contain spoilers so skip if you want! In brief: after a few unpleasant first encounters – Sebastian is an arrogant knob after all – he and Mia start to understand each other – her passion for acting and dream of fulfilling that great role, his passion for jazz and dream of opening that sensational club. They fall in love, but their work takes them in different directions – Seb with a group that isn’t his thing but pays the bills, Mia writing and performing a one-woman play that flops. Petty jealousies, misunderstandings and bad priorities cause them to separate, although they still support each other – in their own way. By the end, they’ve both taken their chosen path to reach a success of sorts.

lll6Now here’s a thing. There’s a sequence shortly before the end where a completely different scenario plays itself out. Instead of huffily ignoring Mia in the club where he’s just been fired, he puts his arms around her and gives her a truly heartfelt snog. Her career blossoms, they have a child, and so on. I’ve seen it described as a dream sequence – where Mia, lost in a reverie, imagines what might have happened if only… etc. There may even be a suggestion that the dream would have been more fulfilling than what turned out to be reality. Life is great in the fantasy La La Land, after all. However, it didn’t feel like a dream sequence to me. I interpreted it as an equally real alternative plot sequence, kicking off at that club snog – what J B Priestley would have called a Dangerous Corner, with the rest being what actually happened if only that snog had taken place. Interestingly, in both scenarios, Mia’s career developed into a success. Sebastian, on the other hand, would have taken a more supportive, house-husbandly role. For me that was not so much a dream, more a playing-with-time surprise ending, and I think that gave the film a good kick up the backside in the final reel.

lll7If Mrs Chrisparkle hadn’t been with me, I think I may have fallen a little bit in love with Emma Stone. She has that slightly vulnerable, slightly awkward, definitely cute appearance at times when she really needs a knight in shining armour to whisk her away. Ryan Gosling? Pshaw! I’d have done it for half the money. But seriously… she gives a great performance as Mia, taking us with her as she runs the gamut from A to Z. She has a terrific connection with the camera, which lets us into her heart. I know you won’t believe me, but I hadn’t seen her before. Much has been made of Ryan Gosling’s extraordinary commitment to learning the piano and how to tap dance specifically for the film and that genuinely is an amazing achievement. Presumably he can only play those few tracks that he had to for the film – outside that he probably can’t get past “I am C, Middle C…” I jest, because I’m jealous. They look damn perfect together – which, I guess, is the whole point – and he gives a great performance with a nice undercurrent of arrogance and irritability which gets to the heart of his character. There are other actors in the film, but these main two predominate so much that the others are quite hard to recall. I enjoyed the sequence where Mia’s roomies (played by Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe) boost her confidence and take her to a swell party – I wonder if it reminds anyone else of the Bye Yum Pum Pum scene in The Happiest Millionaire? No? Just me, then.

lll8I’ve read the most glowing reports of this film and I’ve read the most damning. In the words of Dickens’ original draft: “it was the best of movies, it was the worst of movies.” I can’t really agree with either. Apart from that first scene, it never clutched me by the throat and screamed love me, damn you, love me. It didn’t really motivate me enough to love it. It looks beautiful, it sounds great, and the stars turn in excellent performances, but it just lacked that extra oomph that makes a great movie. But I certainly didn’t hate it – neither Mrs C nor I nodded off, which is high praise indeed when it comes to a film, and I was certainly keen to discover how it resolved itself, and indeed enjoy my new-found love for jazz.

lll9“So did you buy into it?” asked Mrs C, somewhat portentously, as we walked home. And I wasn’t sure of my answer. I wondered if I am now too old and cynical to be taken in by the American Dream – which is written all the way through this film like a stick of rock. But I don’t think that’s the case, as I still think A Chorus Line is as good as it gets, and you can’t get much more American Dreamy than that. It’s true that the packed house at the Errol Flynn gave it a muted, polite reception. There were a few occasions when we laughed at something funny, to discover we were the only ones doing so. I think there is a danger with this film that its smoothly seductive sheen might simply and slowly bludgeon your brain to death with its sheer gorgeousness; satiated with its overwhelming sweetness, like eating three sticky toffee puddings at once. I did enjoy it; I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it again for some time; but I’m sure as hell going to listen to that soundtrack again. Take it away, Various Artists!

Review – I Daniel Blake, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 5th November 2016

i_daniel_blakeI didn’t know too much about Ken Loach’s astonishing new film before we saw it, and that probably helps it to have more of an impact. His naturalistic approach means that it looks every inch a documentary; but it is scripted, by Paul Laverty; and acted, with the two main roles being taken by actors with relatively little experience, which lends the film a further sense of freshness and reality. There is no West End glamour here.

i-daniel-blake-jason-solomons3It’s just the story of the eponymous good man, unable to work because he is recovering from a heart attack, but active enough to be considered fit for work at his Work Capability Assessment. One wonders how many people fall into that gap? His only chance of income is to receive Jobseekers Allowance; and to do that, he has to prove that he has been looking for work. So he spends his days getting his CV out to anyone who’ll accept it; but it’s all a waste of everyone’s time, as, if he is offered a job as a result of it, doctors’ orders say he can’t accept it. It’s a Catch-22. Transgress any of the rules, miss any of the appointments and you face a “sanction” – a sword of Damocles ready to fall on you without warning. Sanctions sound ominous and eerie; like a visiting ghost or a revenge lobotomy à la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The reality is that a sanction is simply another way of expressing the right of the government to refuse to pay the financial assistance to which you are entitled. When we first meet Katie, she has been sanctioned because she missed her appointment – not knowing the location she didn’t realise the bus was going in the wrong direction. So her payments are stopped. That’s a sanction.

i-daniel-blake-1024x682Iain Duncan Smith has criticised the film for its unfair portrayal of Jobcentre staff. Well, it’s been many a year (and many a government change) since I had to endure the humiliation of regular attendance at a jobcentre, but my instinctive reaction to his viewpoint is to disagree. There is a very kindly portrayal by Kate Rutter of Jobcentre Assistant Ann, who does her best to guide Daniel Blake through the myriad of forms and paperwork, even to the extent that she is criticised by her boss for spending too much time trying to help him. Without a doubt, there are kindly, helpful and human Jobcentre staff out there. Even the Rottweiler-like clerk Sheila, a brutally unsympathetic but riveting performance by Sharon Percy, offers him a referral to a food bank, which is (I believe) above and beyond what the job requires. Mind you, that’s not before she’s destroyed his confidence, ridiculed his attempts to comply with the legal requirements, and chalked up another sanction for the team.

i-daniel-blake-2It’s not the Jobcentre staff at fault – they have their own jobs to perform, targets to achieve, bosses to satisfy and sanctions to apply; and no one will know more than them the consequences of losing your job. It’s the system that’s at fault. A system where Health Care Professionals (a generic, meaningless term that simply means you’re paid to make a healthcare decision) are given the responsibilities that should fall to medically trained doctors and nurses. A system where you can only communicate by using the Internet, no matter the level of your technological expertise, or your ability to access to IT equipment. A system where you can’t put right a wrong, no matter how innocently it came about, until you get the call from the “Decision Maker”, one of these doom-laden job titles designed to intimidate. No call from the Decision Maker, no appeal. Of course, you can’t get the Decision Maker to call you. And you’re not allowed to call the Decision Maker yourself. Oh no, he’s far too busy making other decisions to have time for the likes of you. In other words, a system that completely lacks flexibility or common sense because it doesn’t see its customers as people, just as data to be processed. It’s no surprise that Daniel eventually loses his cool. Breaking the law is finally a way of getting society to recognise his existence.

i-daniel-blake-reviewOne of the subtle strengths of the film is that it’s remarkably apolitical. I can’t recall any political party being either blamed for the struggles of Daniel or his friend Katie, nor praised for their wise use of resources. It’s just the very personal tale of widower Daniel, his friend Katie and her children. They are, however, part of a wider community; and the support given by the community is absolutely heart-warming. Whether it be the kindness of the food bank volunteers, the chirpy cheek of Daniel’s ducking and diving neighbours or the individuals who turn a blind eye when they should be enforcing the law, the local community is portrayed with real warmth and affection, and a sense that they’re pulling together to protect their weakest. That’s why, despite the savage misery of many aspects of the film, there are some truly uplifting sequences too; and, much to my surprise, it’s frequently funny. And you’re not laughing whilst feeling guilty about doing so – you’re laughing in companionship at and solidarity with the utterly ludicrous situation these people have to face.

i-daniel-blake-5-797467Dave Johns, who plays Daniel Blake, is perhaps better known as a stand-up comic, and you can see how his comedy skills enhance his portrayal. Of course, he’s not playing the role for laughs, far from it; but he does ease the humour out of those darkest situations with a true lightness of touch. Comedy at its best reveals what life’s really like; Mr Johns gives us a true insight into Daniel’s hopes and aspirations, his decency, frustration, and sadness; his need to support others, and his expectation for just a little support back when he needs it. It’s a superb performance – not that you get the sense that it’s a performance at all.

Briana ShannSimilarly, Hayley Squires is remarkably convincing as Katie, recently moved to Newcastle from London with her two beloved children; a fish out of water and easy prey to manipulators like Ivan, who has a solution to her money worries. There’s a stunning, memorable and totally appalling scene in the Food Bank, where I believe, Ken Loach just told her to act in the way she thought Katie would act under those circumstances. It was at that point that Mrs Chrisparkle started to sob, and she basically didn’t stop until we’d started our post-movie drinks in the bar opposite. There’s also a remarkably mature and moving performance by Briana Shann as Katie’s daughter Daisy; you can already see how easy it is at that young age for a child to become their parent’s carer. She’ll bring a gulp to your throat at least once during the film, I can guarantee you that.

i-am-daniel-blakeThis is one of those films where the audience bears witness to the experiences of people less fortunate than themselves. To look away in their time of need would be for us to shun our own civic and democratic responsibilities. The man to our left peppered the film by frequently muttering “Bastards!” every time Daniel was thwarted. The situation presented is a living nightmare, and something must be done to put an end to it. This was one of those rare occasions when the cinema audience broke into spontaneous applause during the final credits. Many people left clutching tissues. Don’t go away with the thought that this is only a film for left-wingers to appreciate; I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t touch the hearts of everyone somehow or other. The late Kenneth Tynan once famously said that he couldn’t love anyone who didn’t love Look Back in Anger. I rather think I might feel the same way about this film.

Royal and Derngate Theatres Northampton – Happy 10th Anniversary!

10th anniversary partyIt’s been ten years since our spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate Theatres re-opened after their redevelopment, and the Derngate auditorium was born. In those dark days of 2006 we were strangers to Northampton, gentle reader, so I have no recall of the impact of the new complex at the time – although I bet it was major.

FactsYesterday they had a bit of a party to celebrate ten years of achievements – artistic, educational, community-based; and to look forward to the next five years with some special projects they’ve got up their sleeves – more of which shortly. But it was really enjoyable to wallow in the memories of some of those great Made in Northampton productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been privileged to see over the last seven years that we’ve lived locally: the Ayckbourn season (before I started blogging); the brilliant early Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill plays Spring Storm and Beyond the Horizon; the Broadway-transferring End of the Rainbow; the haunting Duchess of Malfi; the hilarious Diary of a Nobody; the stunning Bacchae; the uproarious Mr Whatnot (so funny that we had to book to see it again the following day); the incredible impact of The Body of an American; the gripping King John; the challenging Brave New World; and dozens more besides. The associations with Spymonkey, Figuresthe Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Alston Dance Company. The annual Malcolm Arnold festival. Great musical productions like Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof. All the comedians. All the Screaming Blue Murders. The brash and colourful Derngate pantos and the enchanting Christmas plays in the Royal. On top of all this, there’s the creation of the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, No 1 in Northamptonshire’s Fun and Games choice on Trip Advisor. I could go on but it would be self-indulgent.

Facts and figuresAs you would expect, they’re not sitting on their laurels (although they’re continuing to accumulate them at quite a rate.) Plans for the next five years include creating a brand new cinema complex in Daventry – learning from the whole Errol Flynn experience (which is the most comfortable and grown-up cinema I’ve ever experienced; a new school for Northampton which places cultural and creative learning at its heart; and, (and this one excites me the most) being part of a consortium of greats to commission new music theatre, ranging from opera to musicals, to be presented in a festival format using a brand new portable venue called The Mix, which can seat between 200-400 and can pop up in situ in a matter of 48 hours. I’m very excited to see how that evolves. I’m reassured to know that they’re not losing sight of their core activity either and the new programme for next year’s Made in Northampton gems will be coming out in a few weeks – can’t wait.

PartyTo everyone who works at the Royal and Derngate, you play a part in creating the most welcoming and invigorating hub of artistic pursuits and pleasures. We moved into Northampton at the end of 2008 but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to move out – I just can’t imagine not having the R&D on my doorstep. You’ve spoiled us, Mr Ambassador! Royal and Derngate Theatres – so good they named it twice. Here’s to the next five years, ten years, and happy ever after.

Review – Café Society, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 19th September 2016

Cafe SocietyHere’s the second of two movies in one week because I basically forgot to redeem my final two free visits to the Errol Flynn Filmhouse and I didn’t want to lose them before my “Friends” year ends. The first was The Shallows, not perhaps an obvious choice for us, but exciting to watch and it hugely exceeded our expectations. Again, I’m not sure if Café Society is a film I would have otherwise chosen to see, but it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve seen a Woody Allen film and so this was a good opportunity to put that right.

Jesse EisenbergI was a big admirer of Mr Allen in my youth. As a way-ahead-of-my-time youngster in the 1960s, I loved the trendy glamour of What’s New Pussycat and the trendy slapstick of Casino Royale, which was one of the first films the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see at the cinema. I adored Annie Hall and was moved by Manhattan, enjoyed Zelig and took the young Miss Duncansby – before she became Mrs Chrisparkle – to see Hannah and her Sisters. But I don’t think the young Miss D was anything like as keen on Woody Allen as I was. And consequently I think that might have been the last time I saw one of his films!

Kristen StewartIt’s a relatively simple and agreeable tale of Bobby, a young Jewish guy, who leaves New York to try to find some kind of fame and fortune in Hollywood, spurred on by the fact that his uncle is a massively successful agent, on whose coat-tails he hopes to ride for a bit, to get some contacts and make a life for himself. The uncle’s secretary, Vonnie, is tasked with the job of showing Bobby around the town, and, being a Woody Allen film, Bobby falls in love with her. However – naturally – she has a boyfriend. Relationships come and go – the secretary falls in and out of love with both Bobby and her boyfriend, and, several years later, both Bobby and Vonnie are married – although not to each other – and an uncertain ending leaves you hanging as to how things might get resolved – or not.

Steve CarellIt’s a very enjoyable film, although, despite the relationship difficulties depicted and the personal sadness experienced by some of the characters, not remotely challenging. I thought more could have been made of the difference between Bobby’s tough working class NYC home life and the glitzy glamour of his Californian Lifestyle, but I guess that wasn’t the film Woody Allen wanted to make. Cinematographically, it looks lush throughout, although a tendency to over-sepia-ise some of the scenes (presumably to help with setting the 1930s vibe) got on my nerves a bit once I had identified why everything was appearing so orangey. There’s a very classy jazz soundtrack – primarily, but not exclusively, piano – which really nails the vibe, even though it was a little repetitive for Mrs C’s taste.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen StewartIt’s 1930s New York, so there has to be a gangster – and he comes in the form of Bobby’s brother Ben, ostensibly a decent family man but with a predilection for handing out summary executions with comedic brevity. Bobby’s background family are very credibly realised, with a fine pair of performances from Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as his rather downbeat parents – think Caroline Aherne’s The Royle Family set in the Bronx. And there’s a hilarious scene early on with a beautiful cameo performance by Anna Camp as the willing but rather unprofessional prostitute Candy, that gives you an excellent insight into both the irascible side of Bobby’s character and the shallowness of the Californian way of life.

cafe-society-distinguished-guestsBut the film succeeds most in telling the general awkwardness of the ménage à trois that is Bobby, Vonnie and her boyfriend, “Doug”. (He’s not really Doug.) Kristen Stewart gives a really thoughtful performance as Vonnie, totally Torn Between Two Lovers as the old song goes, trapping her whirlwind of emotions beneath a calm façade that never takes anything for granted or even insists on being treated fairly. Steve Carell gives a good performance as the spoilt and over-successful agent Phil, flourishing under professional pressure but falling apart when it comes to personal relationships. And Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as the gently neurotic, sexually confident and eventually nightclub owning Bobby, in a role that – having missed out on seeing Woody Allen’s gradual development throughout the decades – I see as being precisely the same kind of role that Mr Allen would have written for himself back in the 70s. Talking of which, I only realised afterwards, when doing a little research before writing this post, that Woody Allen is the narrator of the film. I certainly didn’t recognise his voice. But he does a good job, with some nice levels of understatement and comic timing.

Blake Lively in Cafe SocietyThis isn’t a film that’s going to shake the world, but as a gentle and attractive snapshot of America in the 30s, it’s 96 minutes spent in the company of entertaining characters in a privileged environment that balances fantasy with reality – and comes down on the side of a comfy cushion somewhere between the two.

Review – The Shallows, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 15th September 2016

The ShallowsOne of the important aspects of taking out a loyalty membership at a theatre, or in this case cinema, gentle reader, is to make sure that you get your stake back in benefits, freebies, early bookings and what-have-yous. For some reason – maybe because I love live entertainment so much – it’s very easy for me to get out of the habit of going to the cinema. But I was aware it had been a while since our last visit to the Errol Flynn Filmhouse (a long while!) so I enquired when my membership was up. Two weeks’ time – and still two free films to go and see! I couldn’t let them go to waste, so I desperately scoured the listings to find a couple of films that a) were on at a convenient time and b) didn’t look too awful. And the first of those was The Shallows.

I didn’t know much about the film in advance to be honest. I knew it wasn’t a particularly long film, and that it featured beaches and the sea. Actually, I thought it was a French language film. I gathered there was to be some tension and suspense. Maybe someone would get murdered by personne or personnes unknown and get washed up on the beach. Wrong.

Here’s an idea about the plot – although I don’t want to give too much away if you haven’t seen it. Jaws meets Gravity. Let me explain: Nancy is a freewheeling sort of girl, with some slightly blurred backstory where she is finding her own way to grieve at the loss of her mother by taking a lone expedition to a beach in Mexico which is known to her family as “Mom’s beach” and to the rest of the world as… the beach with no name. In fact, whenever Nancy asks anyone the name of the beach they refuse to tell her, in a mysteriously doom-laden portentous manner. Honestly; she spends the early part of the film constantly on her smartphone, so why didn’t she just zoom in on Google Maps? I have to say that whole “what’s the name of the beach” element to the film really got on my wick.

Blake Lively in the ShallowsHowever, once she’s there, she quickly nips out of her clothes and dons her surfing togs, because she’s nothing if not an adventure girl. There are a few lingering shots as she’s peeling off the layers and nestling into her surfboard that tread ever-so-slightly in the direction of gentle soft porn; but, to be fair, those sequences give you an impression of extreme closeness to the action (which is vital for the film to work). And, anyway, Blake Lively has a very nice bum. There’s a couple of lads out surfing as well; they suggest a threesome (not that kind of threesome) but our Nancy is more of the reflective, I Want To Be Alone, type, so she keeps her distance. And starts surfing. And I think that’s all I need to say about the plot without spoiling it for you. However, if you remember the most menacing character in Jaws and the nature of the story in Gravity – I’m sure you’ve already put two and two together and come up with a bloodstained wetsuit. The way Nancy’s plight is resolved is – shall we say – interesting; I guess that as she has been extremely unlucky with that last wave of the day, it’s only fair that she gets the jammiest, luckiest break at the end. Let’s just say that if insurers don’t pay out on Acts of God, the family of that shark are going to be financially bereft after the final credits.

It’s actually a really well put-together film. The tension starts very gradually at first; you sense something horrible is going to happen – but it doesn’t – so you allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security. Nancy’s reliance on her mobile phone is entertainingly and inventively captured by our seeing her phone screen just as clearly as she would see it; in fact, it monopolises one’s attention at first, just as mobiles tend to in real life. When Carlos tells her off for not looking at the beautiful scenery, it’s a reprimand to which we can all relate. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is absolutely captivating; the action surfing scenes where the characters are caught right up in the waves are breathtakingly exciting and give you some insight into how exhilarating doing it for real must be (I’ve never surfed, nor am I ever likely to!) There are some slightly gory moments which make you cringe and look away from the screen; but a lesser film would have indulged much more in the blood and guts of the thing and less on the mental anguish of our heroine, which is a damn sight more interesting.

Blake LivelyAnd Blake Lively is brilliant as Nancy; she’s hardly ever out of shot in the whole film and she really lives the role. You never for a second think of this as an acting performance; she’s there, experiencing and reacting to the whole terrifying scenario. If I were her, I’d never get in the water ever again.

Mrs Chrisparkle and I spent many of the film’s 86 minutes wincing at the screen through our fingers. As we were all leaving the cinema, the two girls to our right said they couldn’t wait to get home for a nice cuppa tea. Certainly much of the action is the stuff of nightmares, and to watch the film is physically exhausting; but when you look back you realise that it’s actually a tight and taut, well-paced thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat and desperate for a happy ending. All that and teach-yourself suturing!