Florence Foster Jenkins

Society hostess empties coffers
To play Carnegie in spite of scoffers
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A syphilitic broad dubbed “the worst singer in the world” by the New York Post who is patron of the Brooklyn Orchestra for Distressed Gentlewomen, owner of a collection of “not for practical use” chairs on which people of note have expired, considers hard work to be an hour of study a day, “sometimes two” and who would rather go without bread than Mozart – is my kind of gal.
No, we’re not talking about the late, great Elaine “I’m Just A Broadway Baby” Stritch nor the later and greater Mae “I Used To Be Snow White But I Drifted” West, but the even later and even more ear-grating social hostess-cum-melody murderer Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep in sparkling form) who despite having a vocal delivery which at best can be described as spirited and at worst flatter than a witch’s tit, sold out Carnegie Hall faster than Sinatra for her legendary concert on 25 October 1944. As Ol’ Blue Eyes used to croon: It Was A Very Good Year!

Unfortunately for Florence, or as her second husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant in excellent form as a hammy British actor on the slide) used to call her Bunny, it was also the year of her death. For a month and one day after her sell-out concert at the esteemed Carnegie Hall – which Newsweek magazine described as: “Where stifled chuckles and occasional outbursts had once sufficed at the Ritz, unabashed roars were the order of the evening” – The Diva of Din passed away. In real life, of a heart attack brought on by the advanced stages of syphilis in the luxurious Hotel Seymour in New York City. In the film, ditto; but with the added contributory factor of reading a stinging review in the New York Post.

Director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) and experienced British television screenwriter Nicholas Martin (for whom this is his debut feature) play it for laughs from the off. And Meryl Streep’s first rehearsal with the effete pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg as a camp Emo Philips) and money-for-old-rope vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) is the highlight of the entire film and sure to get you rolling and lol-ing in the aisles. Streep doesn’t so much miss the notes, more thunders towards them, digs in her hooves, kicks up a cloud of dust and charges off in the opposite direction. Or as the author Stephen Pile more delicately put it: “No one before or since has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.”
But it’s not all about “mockers and scoffers”, as her supportive but far from faithful husband says. For underneath Florence’s Hyacinth Bouquet façade lies a steeliness to survive the horrors of syphilis which she contracted on her wedding night at the tender age of eighteen from her “bit of an alley cat” first husband; a well of loneliness deepened by the fact that her second husband plays away, her so-called “friends” are only with her for the money, and due to her illness sex and children are buried in the past; and perhaps most poignant of all, a misplaced belief in her own ability which is underscored in two moving zoom-outs – firstly, as she one-handedly plays Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor in McMoon’s damp-ridden apartment; and secondly, when she digs out a copy of the New York Post from a trash can and reads the stinging “worst singer in the world” review by music critic Earl Wilson (Christian McKay).
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Although the film is a hoot from start to finish and, as ever, Meryl Streep is nothing short of brilliant, the screenplay by Nicholas Martin lacks a bit of heart in that it doesn’t quite go deep enough under the skin of the characters for my liking. Whether that’s to do with direction, performances, a conscious choice or nit-picking on my part, who knows. But in the end it doesn’t matter because it is a solitary bum note in a symphony of joy. Hugh Grant gives his best performance in over a decade. The conveyor belt of British character actors rise to the rare occasion of being offered a role in a feature. And, above all, the spirit of Florence Foster Jenkins shines through. “People may say I couldn’t sing,” she says after her farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, “but no one can say I didn’t sing.”

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Reviewer : Peter Callaghan
3

The Jungle Book

Revenge-seeking tiger chases man-cub
From wolf pack to homo sapien hub
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“The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” So says wolf pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) to orphan man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who is forced to flee from his adopted home in the jungle to a distant man-village when a scar-faced tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) seeks revenge after the young boy’s late father branded him with the fiery glow of “the red flower”.
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The story (or rather collection of stories and poems, for there were fourteen in total), as laid down by Rudyard Kipling over a hundred years ago and since immortalised in numerous films, comic strips and stage plays – most notably the 1967 animated comedy which featured the hit songs The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You, both of which are reprised in wonderful trad-jazz style in director Jon Favreau’s current adaptation – is widely known.

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However, if like me you happen to be one of the few people alive who has neither read the original nor watched one of the many spin-offs, fret not. For writer Justin Marks has done an excellent job of infusing the litany of characters and labyrinthine plot with warmth and affection, humour and depth, which as the PG rating suggests appeals to both children and the child within. Though several of the fight sequences push the boundary of “mild threat”, so those with very young or sensitive children beware: hands may squeezed, eyes may be averted and urine may be accidentally spilled!
12-year-old Neel Sethi, as one of only three non-CGI characters (the others being Ritesh Rajan as Mowgli’s father and Kendrick Reyes as a younger Mowgli, both in blink-and-you-miss-them roles), is brilliantly cast and turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as the man-cub Mowgli who with his big brown eyes in the beginning is the picture of butter wouldn’t melt, when confronted by the perplexing shrugs and gesticulates like a mini-Woody Allen and, to quote from Kipling’s most famous poem If, having met “triumph and disaster” and treated “those two imposters just the same” by the end drops the boy from his title and becomes “a Man, my son!”
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Offering stellar support in the voice-over department are Ben Kingsley as the wise panther Bagheera who doubles as the narrator, Idris Elba as the boo-hiss tiger Shere Khan, Scarlett Johansson as the sultry python Kaa, Christopher Walken as the orangutan-like King Louie whose humungous frame emerges from the shadows like an overweight Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and – in scene-stealing, almost film-stealing, form – Bill Murray as the slothful bear Baloo whose riotous rendition of The Bare Necessities is worth the entrance money alone.

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The CGI is nothing short of terrific, with each bird and beast not only frighteningly realistic but also imbued with enough human characteristics to make them more quirky and endearing than, say, real-life creatures in a David Attenborough documentary or forensic recreations in films such as Life of Pi. The same goes for the jungle backdrop of towering trees and crashing mudslides through which Mowgli is pursued by the fearsome Shere Khan. And the score by John Debney, which also features a revised version of I Wanna Be Like You performed with George Melly abandon by Christopher Walken, is toe-tappingly sublime. Go see!
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Reviewer :Peter Callaghan

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Hardcore Henry

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Wheelchair-bound scientist soldiers labots
To create an army of fierce robots

An 18 certificate film with the word “Hardcore” in its title about a titular character who shoots his load over an endless parade of Muscle Marys does not sound like everyone’s cup of Horlicks. And it isn’t. Though not for the reasons I alluded to. Following on from the ground-breaking cinematic experiments of recent years such as the found footage of The Blair Witch Project, the continuous tracking shot of Birdman and the single location of Locke, director Ilya Naishuller (frontman for the Russian indie rock band Biting Elbows) has raised the bar by adopting the first person perspective of computer game shoot-‘em-ups to terrific but ultimately soulless effect. Think Kiss Kiss Bang Bang minus the smoochies and with more bullets per second than the final scene of Bonnie and Clyde.
HH Pic 1.jpgThe plot, what there is of it, isn’t really the problem – a stiff with missing limbs is brought back to life courtesy of cybernetics (the fusion of technology and tissue), but due to a malfunction of memory retention is hunted down by his Andy Warhol-meets-Kurt Cobain creator who is building an army of herculean robots to aid him on his quest for world domination. The performances, what there are of them, aren’t really the problem – though the titular Henry is mute, his conveyor belt of enemies are killed without so much as an “I say, dear chap” and one of the main characters Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) shapeshifts so much that he gives Tommy Cooper’s hat sketch a run for its money. And the first-person point-of-view, which bar a couple of scenes which bookend the film is used throughout, isn’t really the problem either – in fact, the director, his cinematographers, special effects team and stuntmen have done an amazing job of making the film look seamless, authentic and visceral.
What is the problem – and it is a biggie – is the violence which give or take a few moments of stillness or surrealism is relentless, bloody and by the end downright tiresome. Something which the creative team have tried to guard against by infusing proceedings with flashes of humour such as a flame-throwing assassin wearing “the gayest jacket I’ve ever seen”, a confusion of subtitles filling the screen when a brace of Russian dominatrices argue with their client, a brief but brilliant homage to Bonanza and the piece de resistance a Pythonesque song and dance routine of the Frank Sinatra classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” which almost, almost turns this 2 star disappointment into a bizarre but engaging 3 star crowd-pleaser. Ultimately, however, Hardcore Henry’s flaws far outweigh its plus points and like many of the cyborgs who shuffled off their mortal coils, by the end I wanted to gouge my bloody eyes out.
Reviewer : Peter Callaghan
3

Midnight Special

8-year-old boy thought to be Son of Man
Abducted by dad for a Higher Plan

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Well, what can I say? Gripping, for the most part. A slow burner, for the entirety. Head scratching, during, after and more so than a midge-infested camping trip to the Highlands or the late David Gest’s marriage to Liza with a Z. Writer and director Jeff Nichols, widely regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation who has recently completed shooting his fifth feature film Loving about the real life court case which led to the reversal of prohibitive interracial marriage laws, has proved once again that his star is on the rise. It’s just a pity that his Hitchcockian grip of suspense and the terrific performances from his cast (notably St Vincent child actor Jaeden Lieberher) are let down by oodles of loose ends and a painstaking crawl to the finish.

Acted by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his childhood friend-turned-state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton) from a religious cult in the outskirts of Texas led by the steely-eyed Calvin (Sam Shepherd). Their reason for doing so is shrouded in mystery, but it’s something to do with Alton’s supernatural powers of “talking in tongues” in both foreign and unknown languages, moving matter with the power of thought, emanating a brilliant bright light from his eyes and dictating the content of his pastor’s sermons – the dates and numbers of which predict an imminent Second Coming and correspond with covert messages from the National Security Agency.

Where they are running to and why is also a mystery, but run they do to a preordained destination via a quick stop off at his mother Sarah’s (Kirsten Dunst) where an undefined happening will occur – the arrival of God, aliens, ghosts, a military foe or as Kirsty MacColl sung “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”. And in hot pursuit are the FBI, CIA, NSA and every other gun-toting three-lettered acronym agency you can think of. Oh, and Alton also possesses something of the Gremlins about him in that exposure to sunlight, though not water and midnight munchies, can prove fatal. And ET’s legendary wish to “phone home” makes a guest appearance towards the end of the film.
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The end of the film – those five words epitomise my main frustration with Midnight Special. It. Takes. An. Eternity. To. Get. To. The end of the film. The slow-burning pace is not the problem because, for the most part, the action is gripping and the performances are excellent. And the audience are always in the dark about what is going to happen next and why the characters are pursuing their lines of thought and action. So kudos to Jeff Nichols on those points. It’s just that he seems to spend the final twenty minutes or so in search of a full stop.
My other gripe relates to loose ends and unanswered questions of which there are many, such as: How was the abduction executed and why? How did Roy manage to enlist his state trooper friend? What threat did the cult pose to Alton? Why did he have to be at a set place at a set time? And given that the nation’s security is at risk, surely a two car roadblock by a handful of heavies who can only fire in self defence is a tad on the Keystone Cops side. For the most part the film is superb, but the answers are blowin’ in the wind.
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Reviewer :Peter Callaghan

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10 Cloverfield Lane

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RTA victim holed up underground
By ex-mariner with motives unsound
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Following an argument with her boyfriend Ben (bags are packed, a ring removed and a door forcibly slammed), Michelle loses the plot as well as her consciousness when her car veers off a rural road in the dark of night and plunges to the bottom of a steep hill. A black out ensues, after which she wakes up in a bed with her arm fixed to a drip. All is well, she thinks. Or is it? As her eyes scan the unfurnished room, she notices a single bulb, four brick walls and a locked prison-like door. And to make matters worse, her leg is chained to a pipe. Then in walks a man of few words: hefty Howard. “There’s been an attack,” he tells her. “A big one.” But whether it’s chemical, nuclear or extra-terrestrial, or whether it’s all in the mind of Big H who according to his farmhand Emmett has “a black belt in conspiracy theories”, who can say.
Once the chains are released and the door unlocked, Howard, Michelle and Emmett play a forced game of Happy Families as they break bread and sink a couple of cold ones round the dinner table in what turns out to be a “doomsday bunker”. The air outside is contaminated, Big H tells them. Everyone else is either dead or dying. And, cue the Eastenders doofs, “no is coming for you”. But fret not, because the punctilious host has prepared for Armageddon for years and stocked up enough supplies to feed a fat camp for a fortnight. Crazy? You bet, thinks Michelle. But not according to Big H who thinks that “crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come.” Doubts about the biblical flash in the sky surface when Michelle discovers items of clothing belonging to a local girl who went missing a few years back. And suspicion turns to terror when the words “Help me” are found etched on a bloodstained skylight. An escape plan is hatched, orders are dispatched and earthbound mortals are by extra-terrestrial Body Snatchers snatched!
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Picture 1.jpgDirector Dan Trachtenberg and his trio of writers which includes Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle have created a taut psychological thriller which retains an air of mystery from beginning to end and keeps the audience guessing about who are the good guys, what is the truth and which crazy direction is the plot going to turn next. John Goodman, so often the loveable, likeable blue-collar everyman, is terrific as the menacing Howard and proves yet again that he is just as fine a dramatic actor as he is a comedic one. In fact, I would go as far to say that his performance is one of the best – if not the best – he has given. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr offer tremendous support by downplaying the melodrama and upping the authenticity. And the nerve-jangling score by Bear McCreary along with the short, sharp, shock editing by Stefan Grube quicken the pulse as the film races to a climactic finale which judging by the closing shot is… To Be Continued.
 Reviewer : Peter Callaghan
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Eddie The Eagle

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]Taron Egerton is Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards. Who would have thought! It’s a bit like saying Brian Blessed is Rudolf Nureyev or Ronnie Corbett is James Dean. On paper, it doesn’t work. But much like the real-life ski jumper who captured the nation’s heart during the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, on the silver screen it’s a triumph over adversity which ranks alongside, though not quite as good as, Billy Elliot; and goes to show that after his success as Colin Firth’s protege in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Tom Hardy’s bit on the side in Legend, there are more strings to Egerton’s bow than a winning smile and a pushy agent. Though if he’s planning a career in obscure biopics, I think the following roles may prove a step too far: the beer-swigging dart-chucker from Fife, Jocky Wilson; one half of the Auchtermuchty strummers, The Proclaimers; and perhaps most challenging of all, Eric Cullen aka Wee Burney from Rab C Nesbitt. If he can nail those, respect!
Joking aside (for the time being), Taron Egerton’s star is not the only one that is rising because director Dexter Fletcher, in only his third feature after the self-penned Wild Bill and BAFTA Scotland-nominated Sunshine On Leith, has crafted a feel-good romp which will appeal to young and old, male and female, sporty and get tae! alike. In fact, for the opening sequence alone he deserves some kind of award (The Opies?) for in the length of time it takes the credits to roll, he quickly and humorously establishes the principal characters, their relationships to one another, the world in which they live and the hopes and dreams of the main protagonist which forms the arc of the tight 105 minutes that follow. Bravo! And Oscar Echo! for not falling into the trap of so many promising film-makers who take an eternity to set out the who, where, what and why.
Eddie Pic 4.jpgThe story of Eddie the Eagle – or rather Far From Steady the Seagull on account of his childhood leg braces and propensity for dive-bombing rather than soaring – is well-known, but Fletcher along with his screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton have done a fine job of keeping things fresh by focusing on Eddie’s naive response to the allure of women and the bravado of alpha men; and, much like the James Corden vehicle One Chance about the inaugural winner of Britain’s Got Talent Paul Potts, for being liberal with the truth. The names have been changed not so much to protect the innocent, but to cut to the chase and ratchet up the tickle-o-meter. We first meet the far-sighted son of a “plucky plasterer” in the bath where, as a child, he is striving to beat his breath-holding record of 58 seconds. Mission accomplished! From there, it’s spear-chucking, shot-putting, high-jumping, sprint-running and, erm, hurdle-hurdling. Think a white Daley Thompson with a black belt in human origami!
Terra firma gives way to aerial gymnastics when he discovers a poster of the Alps in his sporting shrine of a bedroom and learns that the Olympic qualifying standards for ski jumping are looser than a lady of the night’s lingerie. From his redbrick council house in Cheltenham a child his torn to a wooden chalet in Bavaria where an athlete is born and becomes the “sober fool” student of the “drunken coward” coach Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman) who according to his former mentor Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken) was once a champion ski jumper who fell from grace because he thought he was “bigger than the hill”. In comical scenes part-Rocky, part-Frank Spencer, the oddest of odd couples engage in an intense training regime which culminates in Bronson asking his blushing student to simulate sex with his screen idol Bo Derek. What follows are a series of mechanical manoeuvres and moans more Megatron than Meg Ryan!
The rest of the film is devoted to qualifying for and then competing at Calgary with the odd bit of class warfare thrown in for good measure. The British Olympic Committee come out of it looking like an old boys club populated by Etonian toffs and privileged pen-pushers whose duty it is to utilise £4.5m of public funds and corporate sponsorship to bolster their profile and enable young men with double-barrelled surnames and wealthy parents to embark on an “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” jolly. The other opposing agents which add to the dramatic mix are Eddie’s non-supportive father Terry (an under-used Keith Allen) who plays bad cop to his doting wife Janette (Jo Hartley) and the very real dangers of the sport which are illustrated by a number of critical injuries to fellow competitors and Bronson’s quip: “As we say in the Wild West, they’ll be measuring you for a coffin before you even reach the stairs.”
Despite my initial reservations about the casting of Taron Egerton as the lead, he is excellent. His physical transformation of jutting out his jaw and peering down his nose may lack the psychological layers of, say, method school disciples Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale, but his performance is a winning mixture of sweetness and naivety, bafflement and determination. Hugh Jackman is in fine form as the boozy Bronson who comes to the late realisation that, in the words of Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” And Jim Broadbent and Christopher Walken offer stellar support in cameo roles. Comparisons to Billy Elliot are unavoidable; and though Eddie The Eagle lacks depth, gritty realism and political undertones, it should be remembered that it is only a PG whereas the former is rated 15. What they have in common though is a spirit of hope, humour and humanity that anyone, no matter their background, can overcome adversity and strive to go faster, higher and stronger.
Reviewer : Peter Callaghan
3

Deadpool

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Man with face like a testicle with teeth
Shafts enemies in tight-fitting red sheath

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What I know about Marvel Comics I could write on the back of a vapour box. Wolverine, Beast, Havok, Nightcrawler, Maggott – they sound more like my exes than X-Men. And given the spate of superhero films to have hit the big screen over the past several years (I still bear the scars of Daredevil, which if you remove a few letters gives you a bang on the money critique: drivel), when Deadpool was released just over three weeks ago it was more on my f**k it than bucket list. However, when I started to read some of the reviews (The Telegraph: “enjoyably obnoxious”, Variety: “scabrously funny”, The Guardian: “an innocent pleasure”), I thought I’d give it a whirl. And, boy, what a hoot!
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Ryan Reynolds (who also produces) plays Wade “I may be super, but I’m no hero” Wilson who following a dishonourable discharge from the US Army joins “a big group of guys who take a dime to take people down”. By “a big group of guys”, we’re talking skinheads, bikers and leather-chapped chaps (think the Village People with type 2 diabetes). By “take people down”, we’re talking threatening violence rather than actually following through as evidenced when he flounces into a fast food takeaway shop and slaps a nerdy pizza delivery boy on the limp wrist for getting too close to a prom queen. And by “dime”, we’re talking dime.
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In his local alehouse of ill-repute, presided over by his close friend Weasel (T J Miller) who runs a book called the Deadpool on which one of his mad, bad, and sad clientele will pop their clogs first, he meets the love of his life in the shape of call girl Vanessa the Vamp (Morena Baccarin) with whom he engages in a Pythonesque “We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank” chat-up head-to-head. They meet, they greet and they whisk one another off their feet for a year-long sesh of sweaty sex. “Your left leg’s Thanksgiving and your right leg’s Christmas”, he says to his legs akimbo partner. “Can I visit you between the holidays?”
But their bonkfest is brought to a shuddering halt when Wade is diagnosed with a terminal illness – a quadruple whammy of The Big C in the liver, lungs, prostrate and brain – which he describes as “a shit show” like “Yakov Smirnoff opening for the Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair”. All is lost, until a suited stranger with a paedophile disposition known as The Recruiter (Jed Rees) informs him that not only can he cure him of his cancer but also equip him with superhuman powers. Where do I sign? says Wade. But all that glitters is not gold, for the Jim’ll Fix It aficionado was a front for Ajax (Ed Skrein), an artificially-mutated member of the secret research facility Weapon X which creates super slaves rather than super heroes who are are sold on the black market to the highest bidder.
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A struggle ensues, Wade’s face is badly disfigured and along with fellow X-Man Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapičić) and sullen trainee Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) he spends the remainder of the film tracking down Ajax and his sidekick Angel Dust (Gina Carano) to do to them “what Limp Bizkit did to music in the late ’90s”. From beginning to end – It. Is. A. Hoot. The one-liners come faster than a priest giving choral blessings: “today was about as much fun as a sandpaper dildo”. No turn is left unstoned, however juvenile the jape: “Have you ever heard David Beckham speak? It sounds like he mouth-sexed a can of helium.” And the action sequences are both funny and impressive: with a budget of almost $60 million you’d expect nothing less. I’m not one for X-Men and I’m not one for sequels, but given that a follow-up has already been greenlit, to quote Wade Wilson: “I’m touching myself tonight.”
Reviewer : Peter Callaghan
4