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.

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!