The Party

 

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“Do you really want me holding both glasses, Sally?”

* 1/2

Despite its very modest appearance – a single set, seven characters, black and white digital cinematography and, most modest of all, a running time of only seventy-one minutes, extraordinarily short for a theatrical release – The Party is a major disappointment. This is because, modest as it may be, it is the work of some very serious talent, betrayed by a sub-standard script and stumbling direction.

Those seven characters are played, literally, by an all-star cast, and I would dearly love to see them re-unite for a better movie. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a British politician who has just been appointed Shadow Minister for Health; Timothy Spall plays her husband with a secret or two; and Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer and Cillian Murphy play their party guests. Over the course of an afternoon, as those secrets spill, everyone’s lives get messy.

The writer (with story editor Walter Donohue) and director is Sally Potter, most famous for Orlando (1992), who takes an average of four years between films, and who has taken five since 2012’s Ginger and Rosa. She’s rusty, or disinterested, or complacent, because the script here blatantly needed more work, and the direction is clumsy. Unable to slot into a comedic or dramatic groove, the film skips between the two uncomfortably; it is not an example of balanced tone. Not seeming to know whether they’re in a comedy or a very serious drama, the actors are completely at sea, almost none of the performances gelling, even within two-hander scenes. Spall, Ganz and Clarkson give particularly grating, stilted performances; to their credit, it seems very much to be the fault of the script and the direction, or lack of it. At times Spall seems hamstrung, painfully inert, incapable of making any sort of reasonable acting choice.

It feels very much like Potter is attempting to emulate the work of playwright Harold Pinter, who indeed has a play called The Birthday Party, and whose televised adaptations have the black and white look Potter’s going for here. But Pinter is all about ambiguity, whereas Potter spells it all out, word by over-enunciated word. Clarkson’s character may as well be called ‘Elaine Exposition’, only existing to remind us again and again why we’re all here; until Cherry Jones finally steps on Emily Mortimer’s dialogue, late in the piece, the character’s lines – unwieldy to begin with – are all spoken in isolation (as opposed to overlapping). If that’s a highly deliberate choice, it’s a terrible one. This isn’t even adapted from a play, yet it’s more stagey and ‘theatrical’ than almost any new play you’ll see at the modern theatre. If it was on stage, directed as it is here, it would close in previews. Who could’ve thought seventy-one minutes could be so long?

 

The Other Side of Hope

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* * * 1/2

Fans of Finland’s pre-eminent auteur Aki Kaurismäki will be pleased to know that his latest, The Other Side Of Hope, offers all the elements they’ve come to expect of this über-stylist. If you’re unfamiliar with Kaurismäki’s work, it can be hard to describe, but I’ll have a crack: think Twin Peaks David Lynch interior compositions, Jim Jarmusch sound design and framing, and Derek Jarman production design, telling simple, human stories with the driest humour possible. Everything is shot on sets, with the walls behind the actors inevitably lit with long, threatening shadows that give every scene a sinister feel. The actors are placed just so, rarely move, and perform at a slightly tranquilised level (think Yorgos Lanthimos’ use of actors, such as in The Lobster). The results are absolutely unique to Kaurismäki, and his films all stylistically fit together; they form a universe.

Here, Kaurismäki – who often tells ‘foreign’ stories – is back in Helsinki, telling the story of two men re-inventing themselves, one perforce, one (sort of) by choice. Khaled is a Syrian refugee who has ended up in Helsinki seeking asylum; Waldemar is a middle-aged businessman, a totally establishment Helsinki figure, who leaves his wife and sells his rag trade business, re-inventing himself as a restauranteur. The film follows their trials and travails, first on their own, then together. It’s funny, warm, and full of compassion. Dare I say it: it’s a “feel-good refugee movie”, but with integrity and pathos.

If you’re a fan of Kaurismäki, you’re already there. If you’re a newbie and curious, this is a perfect opportunity to dip your toe in, as it’s representative of his finest work. He’s not for everyone, but if you like what you see, there’s a whole world of his to discover.

A Quiet Place

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* * *

First, the idea is a cracker: human society has been devastated by invading blind aliens who hunt us down with their acute sense of hearing. Then, add excellent, tight direction from John Krasinski and a lean, somber script from Krasinski, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. Add some integrity with the addition of excellent deaf young actress Millicent Simmonds playing a deaf girl. You’re cooking now. But the ingredient that puts this very effective little horror gem over the top is Emily Blunt. Thousands of actresses have played women in peril in horror movies, but Blunt shows you the value of shelling out for one from the A-List. To sell the big premise, the small moments must all feel true, and so must the fear.

Much of the film, as befits its premise, is dialogue-free, so we’re talking about quiet, intimate, gestural acting, acting of the face, and Blunt has a very sincere face. There’s never a false moment with her. She and Krasinski play a couple desperately trying to maintain a family in the wake of annihilation (they are a couple, and parents, in real life, too) and part of the reason the film works is that you believe in the family.

For me, as a dad, the family meant stakes – the ultimate stakes. The film is all about this couple doing everything they can to protect their children, and I could relate, as, I hope, any parent could, end of the world or not. If you’re young, single and care-free, the stakes of the film may not resonate for you as strongly, but you’ll still be left with a very well crafted, nifty, A-Grade horror picture that comes in at a perfect ninety minutes. There are some disappointing choices – for a film about sound, it uses too much music, there are a couple of big plot holes, and the aliens are cobbled together from other movies’ aliens, which is very lame – but this is absolutely a better-than-average genre flick, with a terrific ensemble at, and providing, its significant heart.

Ready Player One and (Cock) Blockers

Ready Player One * *

(Cock) Blockers * 1/2

There are a few movies by Steven Spielberg I’ve missed – The Big Friendly Giant, Always – but, generally, I see them all. He’s (beyond) dependable; he knows, maybe more than anyone alive, the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. When you go to a Steven Spielberg film, you’re guaranteed to get a professional product. It will be well paced, well scripted, certainly not boring.

Not this time. Ready Player One is an overlong, meandering mess, and a stain on Spielberg’s CV; it’s certainly the least satisfying film of his I can remember seeing. Spending much of its time in ‘The Oasis’, a video game, following a very, very bland young hero (played by a very, very bland Tye Sheridan) trying to… well, win a video game, this is a film essentially devoid of stakes, or at least any stakes I could get on board with.

Even outside its vacuous milieu, the film makes remarkably dunderheaded choices. An example that is emblematic of the whole: Sheridan’s avatar in the game falls for a cute female avatar, but when he professes his attraction, she warns him that IRL – in real life – she’s not so pretty. SPOILER ALERT: When he finally meets her, she’s gorgeous (Olivia Cooke plays her) with a small, and not unattractive, birthmark. It’s a groaner moment among many.

There are groaner moments galore in Blockers (aka Cockblockers), a ‘sex comedy’ that totally blows its (kind of) clever premise: three parents try to stop their daughters having sex on prom night. There’s a movie there, and this version of it bends over backward to feature casual diversity, diversity of sexuality, and, essentially, a pro-(safe)-sex message, but it also wallows in the kind of forced, saccharine sentimental schmaltz that much older films like Animal House and American Pie managed to avoid. We’re left, then, with a film that pretends to be progressive, but is actually pathetically mired in sloppy convention. The final twenty minutes are unwatchable; I was deeply embarrassed for every single actor on screen as they delivered lines that betrayed any hope the film’s (not even) risqué title promised.

Cagney and Lacey (Netflix)

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As the terrifying massive ratings for the recent debut of a new season of Roseanne demonstrate, everything old remains new again. We don’t necessarily need any of these retreads, which also include Will and Grace and Dynasty and upcoming Murphy Brown, but as long as we watch them, we’re going to keep getting them.

Depending, I suppose, on the age, availability and gameness of the original cast members, some of these shows are “revivals” – Roseanne and Will And Grace feature their original casts – while some are “reboots”. Cagney and Lacey, on CBS All-Access in the US and Netflix in the rest of the world, is a mix of the two. The characters are meant to be the same, but they’re played by new actors; admirably, the show bucks most trends by casting new actors who are not only far more established than the original cast members were, but are as old – or older – than the characters themselves would have become.

Helen Mirren is two years younger than Sharon Gless, who originally played Cagney, the blonde, single, career-minded cop partnered with Lacey, played by Tyne Daley in the original and here played by Judi Dench, who, at 83, is eleven years Daley’s senior. It would have been very easy for Netflix to cast two “hot” twenty-somethings, so kudos to them for allowing these two characters to age (and so gracefully). Perhaps we have the astonishing success of Gracie and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, to thank?

The casting of the two Dames is quite a coup; who hasn’t hankered to see them in a vehicle together? Unfortunately, this is pretty much the wrong vehicle. Dench takes to Lacey’s boozy swagger with gusto (if a bit too much Brooklynese) but Mirren, unfortunately, seems all at sea as Cagney. Gless was always the “femme” to Daley’s “butch”, but Mirren seems determined to go another way with her interpretation, presenting a Cagney every bit as grizzled and gutsy as her partner (she also has a much harder time with the accent). Sure, time has passed, and both of the characters have every reason to be hard-bitten, but the similarity of the characters – a fault obviously partially to blame on the script – robs the series (I’ve seen the first four of ten episodes) of one of the original’s most distinct flavours, which was the the difference between the two. Mirren and Dench, as older versions of two distinct women, seem to have grown into one. Or perhaps, the series is saying, all Cagneys become Laceys over time.

The Death of Stalin

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