Friday, 6 March 2015

Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986)

In an era whereby Avenue Q and Book of Mormon dominate the musicals on the West End, we mustn’t forget the imaginative and darkly joyous cult favourite Little Shop of Horrors. In fact, Little Shop of Horrors boasts the master duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman penning the lyric and music respectively. These are the force that pulled Disney from the dumps and to the heights of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast only a few years later. Little Shop of Horrors is a feast to devour, and you’d be foolish not to give it a taste.

Seymour (Rick Moranis) works, and lives, on Skidrow. He is madly in love with busty colleague Audrey (Ellen Greene) and despite the abuse he receives from flower-shop owner Mr Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), he appreciates the roof provided. This is a self-proclaimed rock-horror musical akin to the wickedly delightful Rocky Horror Picture Show. Its B-Movie story is taken straight from a 1960, Roger Corman farce and manages to weave its memorable melodies (including favourites Skidrow (Downtown), Suddenly Seymour and Academy Award nominee Mean Green Mother from Outer Space) seamlessly into the monster-munching narrative. The animation of ‘the plant’, named Audrey II, is flawless as Levi Stubbs provides fast-talkin’ vocals that the puppeteers cleverly navigate. This director’s cut is a real wonder to watch at the cinema too, with a spectacular finale that reverses the original ‘happy’ ending with a special-effects savvy anti-ending with only the destruction of the world in sight – a treat that has only been available since 2012.

Watching Little Shop of Horrors also reveals cameos from the cream of the crop of American comedians in the 1980’s. Bill Murray, James Belushi, John Candy and Steve Martin all make exceptional, memorable appearances. Rick Moranis, a staple of the eighties within Ghostbusters and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, is rarely seen today and the little shop really does make you miss his wide-eyed helplessness that make his characters so much fun.

Little Shop of Horrors manages to make light of a broad range of incredibly dark subjects, whether it is the abusive boyfriend of Audrey, Seymours suicide attempt or the gross poverty of an inner-city. Audrey II represents much more than an entertaining, wise-cracking monster. Audrey II could be consumerism, and our own addiction to shopping and products. Could the plant be about vices? About our struggle to control our urges - no matter how destructive the consequences? In fact, Audrey’s song Somewhere That’s Green alludes to this dreamy sense of happiness. She wants Seymour and she wants to be happy – but the Better Homes magazine is what instructs and describes her happiness. She needs a shiny, chrome toaster and a Tupperware seller to know who she is – and to prove her pleasure. But Audrey is quite clearly played as a ditzy blonde, and surely not the peak of forward-thinking womanhood. Furthermore, the success of the off-Broadway show in 1982 connects the film to Nixon’s presidency, whereby bit-by-bit, the corporate American Dream convinced many - but left many more behind in the gutter (a literal gutter, opposed to ‘The Gutter’ club where Audrey met her boyfriend).

This is a wonderful success, managing to balance cheeky-songs, potentially-poignant subtext and a cast that defines the era it was made within. Little Shop of Horrors plays as part of the BFI’s ‘Cult’ strand that began in January. The experience of watching the ‘Directors Cut’ of Little Shop shows how unique these screenings are – and you can bet they’ll be many more in the coming year. Audrey II’s famous phrase “feed me!” only seems appropriate when treats like this are on the platter every month.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)

We want films that shake us up. That pulls us out of our slumber and knocks us into the modern era. Persepolis, an outstanding comic-book adaptation combining documentary and animation together, managed to achieve this. Causing demonstrations, banning and censorship in many places across the world, it is important to appreciate the criticism the film met with. From our perspective, the countless nods it achieved in end of year lists of 2007, awards nominations (including the Academy Awards) and festivals gives the impression that it bypassed such stern opposition. But it didn’t. Despite its personal depiction of a girl growing into a woman, Persepolis is a film that jumped from the screen and fought. It challenged views and caused disruption. Isn’t this what the best films do?
Marjane Satrapi is the woman waiting at the airport. In colour, she awaits a flight at Paris-Orly to go home to Iran. Her mind wanders back to monochrome-memories of Tehran and the family she misses so much. Her childhood is a mix of protests and inspirational talks with her uncle, Anoush (combined with a love of Bruce Lee and, in time, Iron Maiden). We see the changes in her world as Islamic Fundamentalists succeed in gaining 99% of the vote, and force strict expectations on the populace. This includes all women wearing headscarves and a no-tolerance attitude towards alcohol. Marj’s middle-class parents, Tadji and Ebi, seek a better life and send her to Austria for schooling. She meets punk-fan friends and falls in, and out, of love, before returning to Tehran and experiencing the regime as an adult, whereby Art classes are conducted with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus censored and a life-model covered from head-to-toe, leaving only the head poking out. We wonder whether Marj will stay. And how this all leads back to her colourful days in a Parisian airport.
Persepolis preceded the Oscar-nominated foreign-film Waltz with Bashir in 2008, and joins the ranks of international animated films that weave complex politics into digestible cartoon stories. There is always a worry that cinema can dilute, or take away from the seriousness and severity of situations abroad. Instead, Persepolis ensures that we access the story comfortably. The comedic flavour of the animation slips us into the era in a way that we can relate to. Her Guernica-chin jutting out as her body changes shape, or the change of animation as she recalls her relationship with a scumbag cheater, is something we understand. It isn’t too far to relate to the parties and risky games played, as Marj enjoys her younger years. Suddenly, a conflict that was almost exclusively on television screens, in unclear footage and news bulletins, becomes relatable and true to westerners.
Directed by Marjane Satrapi herself and Vincent Paronnaud (an artist who uses the pseudonym Winshluss), Persepolis is a triumph, succeeding in using the comic-book art-form to engage. At one moment, Marj tells a friend that she is from France – a momentary lapse in judgement that is regretted as soon as her Grandmother appears to chastise her. Satrapi has not only proudly stood by her roots, with a clear love for her homeland and its history, but she makes it a world that is full of beauty and character. Yes, Persepolis criticises the strict regime and expectations on women in Iran. But it is framed from the perspective of a woman who wants to desperately be part of a country that won’t accept her existence. More of love-letter to a time that won’t be forgotten, Persepolis is a story of brutal, heartfelt honesty and it’ll linger long after your first viewing.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Project Almanac (Dean Israelite, 2015)

The word ‘almanac’ isn’t in the vocabulary I use. Perhaps ‘annual’, but I’d assume a collection of lists isn’t what the director is alluding to. Instead, he’s referring to the infamous Grays Sports Almanac at the centre of Back to the Future Part II. Marty’s plan to outwit the doc and make money using the sports results backfires spectacularly as Old Biff gets his copy and changes the future forever. In fact, a future set in the year 2015. How perfect that, now we’re in 2015, a film using the term appears. What would happen if Marty, and his friends, got hold of the almanac today? Travelling through time to bunk school, win the lottery and get the girl? Director Dean Israelite aims to answer this question in Project Almanac.

Marketed as “Chronicle meets Primer”, Project Almanac is a found-footage teen flick, whereby our college-applying scientists find a clock-rewinding contraption in the basement. David (Jonny Weston) has been accepted into MIT but can’t afford the fees. His Mum (Amy Landecker), on the lookout for a job herself, decides to sell the house to pay for him. His father (Gary Weeks), a scientist, passed away a decade before. In his old lab beneath the house, David - alongside his sister (Virginia Gardner) and friends (Sofia Black-D'Elia, Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner) - finds the ‘Project Almanac’ plan for a time-machine. Potentially the answer to all his problems, he and his friends embark on a committed effort to ensure the mechanics work and, to their shock (though not to ours), a broken X-Box, a few small-canisters of hydrogen and a car battery does indeed create a time-machine.

Older-folk will recall a similar movie from 2004 in the Ashton Kutcher-starring The Butterfly Effect. Considerably darker in comparison, The Butterfly Effect managed to ram home the “there are always consequences” dilemma as seen here in the mould of a teen-romance plot. Project Almanac is amusing in its carefree tone, as the core group are upbeat nerds who are likeable through their complete ignorance of the school clichés. They work hard and help each other; they enjoy creativity and construction; they know about parties but have their own interests to pursue. These might seem like minor plus-points, but their decisions to clock-hop to gain one-up on a bully and support their educational dreams are a long way from celebrity-status and winning The X-Factor.
Not that Project Almanac ignores these enviable pursuits completely. Within the group, one kid is proud of “being someone” in the school following their clock-reversing exploits, while their winning-the-lottery gag is a nice touch. But this isn’t central to the story. The love of another, and being with someone who cares for you, is front and centre. Huddled in a circle, the scientific-explosion throws the clan all over the shop, and we enjoy the ride. Teens will appreciate the Lollapallooza advertisement (something that staggered my own appreciation) that firmly locates the pop-picture in West-coast America - as kids must witness this context on MTV regularly. MTV Films partly financed the film too.

By referencing Time Cop and Terminator, they’re savvy in their pop-culture lexicon. All this recording, like all found-footage filmmaking, is justified by its handheld hand-holder, David’s sister Christine. It’s Christine who’s told off for her incessant documenting, and it’s Christine who’s glared at when reminded of ‘rules’ regarding Facebook and Twitter. In fact, the forced ‘setting the rules’ segment and ‘montage of time-travel’ escapades are tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these drawn-out chunks of countless other films. Having said that, the expected “look-what-we’ve-found!” and “how-do-we-make-this-work?” intro outstays its welcome. We know the invention will work, so can’t we leap there?

Produced by Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, it’s easy to dismiss this as flippant fodder for the young ‘uns to enjoy. But it’s not without its merits. There is fun to be had, and isn’t that the point? Take away the inevitable excuses for an extra buck in production (Product-placement, “inspired by the motion picture” soundtrack-selling) and you have a warm heart and cool extension to the time-travel genre. Could it be better? Of course. Would I go back in time and erase its existence? Absolutely not – it’s a keeper.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

Romance is in the air. The arrow of cupid has struck and, as Robson and Jerome covered, this Saturday night is at the movies. You may believe a Subway and Titanic is a romantic night in. I would argue it’s not*. In fact, an alternative is to head down to the BFI and watch a re-mastered copy of The Philadelphia Story. Not only will this extraordinary comedy give you a superior sense of cinematic taste, but it also features the genius pairing of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart – and that’s in addition to the feisty Katharine Hepburn, who’s the subject of a retrospective throughout February. The Philadelphia Story is a fast-paced, playful romance that toys with ideas of wealth, duty and love. Jimmy Stewart the hardworking cynic. Cary Grant the smug, self-assured playboy. And, of course, Katharine Hepburn herself, who’s due to be married to a sensible fellow.

Laid back and nonchalant, Cary Grant is the ex-husband hiring the press to snoop on the rich Lord Family, as Tracy Lord (Hepburn) intends to remarry. The affluence of the Lord’s is not to be ignored. There are expectations and roles to represent – and Tracy has no interest in doggedly following Daddy’s orders. But this rebellious streak can be found in the two who eventually vie for her love. Dexter (Cary Grant) and Connor (James Stewart) are both rebellious creatures. Dexter plots to spoil Tracy’s wedding, while Connor simply despises the entire elite system. It’s only George Kittredge (John Howard) who gamely attempts to follow the rules. If you’re to strike a lover off Tracy’s list, her husband-to-be is surely at the top.

Rumour has it that J.J.Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, watches The Philadelphia Story before going into production on every film he creates. It may not be the sci-fi you’d assume or an action jaunt that would seem more in keeping with the genre filmmaking of Abrams, but it does prove how Donald Ogden Stewart’s script is something to behold. Winning an Oscar for the screenplay, it manages to weave in and out of different stories changing your attention between each character and reframing your initial judgements. Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for Best Actor and, though nominated for Best Picture, it lost out to Hitchcock’s first American production, Rebecca. It seems Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock were destined for each other –perhaps it was at that very ceremony whereby their partnership was formed.

The Philadelphia Story also holds a little history too, as this was Katherine Hepburn’s comeback film. After a run of failed films (including the magnificent Bringing Up Baby failing to pull in the crowds), she was deemed ‘box office poison’ by independent cinemas across America. Written by Philip Barry for the stage, Barry wrote the part with Hepburn in mind and it consequently led to a successful Broadway show co-starring Joseph Cotton. Interestingly, The Philadelphia Story was adapted further into a musical in High Society.

So, with your plans arranged for this weekend, there is no need to thank me. Instead, thank the impeccable comedic timing of Cary Grant and the cheeky face of Jimmy Stewart. In fact, thank Katherine Hepburn, who seems to be so exquisite that she turned the audience around and won their support. This was the beginning of her “comeback”, to lead to, among others, The African Queen. This is a romantic comedy of the highest order, and shouldn’t be missed.
*but we all make mistakes

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

250W: Boyhood

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater/2014)

When production began on Boyhood, in 2002, Richard Linklater was known as an indie-director of cult-favourites Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. Today, one remains a staple of Sundance success stories and the other is the first part of a trilogy. Suffice to say, Boyhood is his most ambitious project to date. Documenting a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), turning into a man could’ve been cliché and obvious. Instead, Linklater manages to capture the honest glances and gazes of characters. Sibling rivalry is flippant and fun. Friendships and romances are passing and innocent. This isn’t “12 Years a troubled-teen” – this is the conversations, and memory-keeper moments, that matter. Gazing out of the car window as your father (Ethan Hawke) amusingly explains how you should converse. The step-father who drank too much. The mother (Patricia Arquette) who never gave up. Like life, nothing stays the same. Mason can be sulky and this can irritate, but look past his story and consider his perspective. Young and impressionable. Artistic and expressive in his fashion and photography. Like Mason, who constantly soaks up the world, Boyhood wants you to take away more than entertainment. Richard Linklater knew he had gold as, little over three hours long, one could argue the length is a problem. But, in this binge-watching age, a 12-part series in three-hours is surely no chore. And it isn’t. It’s playful and joyful. Boyhood celebrates youth and comments on politics and parenthood, passing little judgment. Without saying much, Boyhood, moodily, says it all.

Rating: 9/10