Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Midsommar

Midsommar

There are times when, walking out of the cinema, you feel lost and confused. You have more questions than answers. You’re maybe even a little disturbed. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

Midsommar is that film. Ari Aster’s latest is a wonder to watch, yet deeply unsettling. I think I liked it.

It is, above all, a masterpiece in mood. Set in northern Sweden (though actually filmed in Budapest), it takes inspiration from the region’s lack of night during the summer. This is a meditative, hallucinatory film with a timeless quality. Where most horror films revel in darkness, here we have perpetual light. It’s strangely disorientating.

The narrative follows a group of American students who visit their friend’s family in Sweden for the summer. It turns out they’re part of an old cult who meet for festivities every 90 years. It begins innocently enough: a pastoral, bucolic vision of life, full of freshly harvested food, singing, dancing and community. It’s idyllic even. But things take a bizarre turn during the various rituals that become increasingly deranged. In the midst of this is Dani (Florence Pugh), suffering from anxiety after her bipolar sister commits suicide and murders her family in the process. All she has left is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s emotionally distant. Their relationship on the brink of collapse, the trip seems like a make or break opportunity.

The setup and pagan rituals will be familiar to many. What sets Aster’s film apart is his cinematography and use of sound. What’s so unsettling is how things seem so normal, yet there’s something not quite right either, setting the film off-kilter. It’s in the way the camera loops upside down as it follows the students’ car; or a flower slowly and subtly pulsing in a headdress; or framing that slightly obscures the action. It replicates the hallucinatory quality of the film, as trees and grass shimmer either from drug consumption or simply the heat of the constant sun. The music, too, is eerie: harmonious drones that slowly distort with dissonance.

The uneasy atmosphere is then punctuated by moments of graphic violence and/or sex. These are intended to shock, a tactic that seems somewhat cheap within such artful mood-setting. But they also lend the story some dramatic weight – and, in all honesty, the odd moment to chuckle at absurdity.

That’s all very well if there’s a strong narrative underpinning it all. But it’s here where Midsommar begins to slip through Aster’s grip. His film is fuelled by anxieties: grief, death, cheating, emasculation, perhaps even a fear of foreigners. Yet what it all means is left entirely ambiguous. Is this a film about the need for community, that, no matter how deranged and bizarre, we all need a family to belong to? Or is this a straightforward revenge tale about a perverse break-up, a woman finding release from her partner in the most eccentric manner? Or maybe I’ve missed the mark?

Aster’s folk horror is a pensive meditation on a muddle of themes, one that satisfies for its craft more than its narrative and sits just on the right side of pretentious. For some, its ambiguity is a void. For others, the guessing is half the fun.

3/5

Watch: Midsommar is out now.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

As a character, Adrian Mole is something of a relic. He might be only 13¾, but he is absolutely a product of his time. His secret diary was written by Sue Townsend and published in 1982, filled with Thatcherite politics and British social satire. Thirty five years later, the novel has now been adapted into a musical. But the question is: is it still relevant?

The themes at the heart of the novel are, of course, universal. It follows a year in the life of Adrian, a precocious teen struggling with the usual trials and tribulations of growing up, his relationship with his parents, finding a girlfriend and measuring his privates (something the books became known for but aren’t mentioned much here). The issue, though, is with the presentation of this story.

The book and lyrics, from Jake Brunger, remain close to the novel. That means it’s full of 80s references, from celebrities like Pebble Mill and Princess Diana, to shops like Woolworths and C&A. Pippa Cleary’s music has an old fashioned charm that feels warm and familiar, if not particularly fresh. No matter how relatable Adrian may be as a character, the musical and its references will likely fly way over the heads of most young people who may visit the show.

If anything, this is a musical for an older generation who read the books growing up and are now looking for a nostalgia fix. It’s a particularly British narrative, with a royal wedding and nativity play on the positive side and old fashioned misogynistic political views on the negative. Even the 80s pop songs played during the interval slather on a thick layer of nostalgia. Equally, though, the focus on young performers, a colourful set (Tom Rogers) that resembles an oversized notepad and opens up like a toy box, and pop choreography (Rebecca Howell) give the show a youthful family-friendly feel that may not click with adults. Instead, this musical falls into an awkward middle ground between young and old that doesn’t fully satisfy either group – the sort of show your grandparents would take you to see for some dated yet wholesome entertainment.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. There’s plenty of charm here, from the young cast of performers (Rufus Kampa as Adrian deserves special mention for leading the show), to the adults amusingly playing children, and the overall cartoonish characterisation. The jokes are plentiful and the direction is generally polished, even if this feels more suited to a touring production than a West End destination. What’s most engaging is the subplot relationship between Adrian’s parents, Pauline (Amy Ellen Richardson) and George (Andrew Langtree). This is the emotional heart of the show, with Richardson in particular giving an emotive vocal performance. Though, as a thirtysomething, perhaps real adult problems are more appealing than reminiscing about a youth spent with a ruler firmly in hand.

3/5

Watch: Adrian Mole: The Musical runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 28th September.


Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Photos: Pamela Raith

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home

When you boil it down, every Spider-Man film has the same central themes: what it means to be a hero, how to take responsibility, and how to live up to a legacy. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

That's pretty appropriate for this latest film in the franchise (more on Mysterio later). Following directly from Avengers: Endgame, the death of Iron Man/Tony Stark hangs heavy over the entire world. The question on everyone's lips: who will be his successor? And - ignoring Don Cheadle's War Machine, that kid who made a surprise appearance at Stark's funeral, or following the comics with a black female version of the character - Tom Holland's Spider-Man is the unlikely but apparently most fitting person.

Flipping that on its head too, the film is as much about who will take Stark's place as Peter Parker's father figure. The result is a filler film that's enjoyable on its own, but is more of a transition into the next phase of Marvel's cinematic universe.

One of those potential father figures is Jake Gyllenhaal's Mysterio. He's a warm and slightly eccentric presence who initially develops a kinship with Parker, but after a predictable twist is revealed to be the film's villain, a man using drones and projections to simulate an Avengers level threat from which he can save the day. That mix of reality and projection makes for some creative special effects and set pieces, but once you know it's smoke and mirrors the film loses some impact. The stakes are relatively low here, which does make for a refreshing change after such big event films.

It's also suitable for what is ultimately a teen drama. Parker just wants to enjoy his summer vacation and kiss the girl of his dreams, Zendaya's MJ. She makes for a droll, blasé yet endearing feminist who's far from a damsel in distress. Holland, meanwhile, is probably the best cinematic representation of Spider-Man: youthful, cheeky and likeable. Together they make a particularly modern and relatable pair of protagonists.

The plot is also an excuse to reveal what Americans think Europe is like. Not only is it full of a thousand years of history and monuments to be recklessly destroyed, but quirky people, funny languages and stereotypes, and it's small enough to travel great distances between countries in a matter of hours on a bus. Some of the inconsistencies are more laughable than the script.

Yet that's fitting for such a lighthearted piece of popcorn cinema. We may have lost some of the Avengers, but the Spider-Man plotline at least remains in good hands.

3/5

Watch: Spider-Man: Far From Home is out now.


Saturday, 6 July 2019

Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway


Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway

Teen films and musicals go hand in hand. So with its cult following and feminist message, it was almost inevitable that Tina Fey’s 2004 film Mean Girls would get the Broadway treatment. And it’s not alone: in 2018 Heathers: The Musical reached London (following an Off-Broadway run in 2014) and a new adaptation of Clueless premiered Off-Broadway late last year.

It’s Mean Girls, though, that’s reached the heights of Broadway, premiering in March 2018 and still going strong. Perhaps as the most recent film it’s clicked more with young theatregoers. But it’s also testament to Tina Fey’s writing that remains as snappy, funny and quotable as ever, even with a few small tweaks. That’s despite a plot of typical teen stuff: Cady Heron arrives as the new girl in school and infiltrates the cliquey “Plastics” who rule the hallways, to bring about their downfall.

In musical form, Mean Girls is camp fun. There remains a serious message beneath it all, teaching young women to support and respect one another. And that’s now been updated for the social media age – especially with Scott Pask’s scenic design that uses video screens for a modern, technological edge. Sometimes that message is lost amongst all the jokes and laughter, but the characters remain relatable.

Indeed, Mean Girls is a tour de force of character acting. Much of the characterisation has been exaggerated, but what the show loses in subtlety it gains in outlandish performances. As head of the Plastics and life ruiner Regina George, Taylor Louderman is the show’s queen bitch. She plays Regina as a femme fatale: fiercely sassy, manipulative and deadly. Vocally, too, she’s the strongest, showing off a dynamic range from gentle, sensual yearning to belting top notes. Grey Henson as the “too gay to function” Damien is also a delight, with the most quotable lines filled with musical and pop culture references.

Some parts have been expanded, but to the detriment of others compared with the film. Beyond a head full of secrets, Krystina Alabado makes Gretchen a more identifiable character with the ballad “What’s Wrong With Me?”, and Kate Rockwell’s Karen is lovable in her stupidity. Kyle Selig’s Aaron though barely sings, despite being a key part of the narrative, and as teacher Ms. Norbury Jennifer Simard’s role is much diminished from Tina Fey’s portrayal (though she doubles as other characters too). Then again, the show is really all about the Plastics, and when they're such a joy to watch in their delicious malevolence, who really cares?

As belly-achingly hilarious as the show is, if it has one flaw it’s Jeff Richmond's score. The individual numbers certainly emphasise each character, from Regina’s diva showstopper, to Damien’s tap number and Janis’ punk rock. But melodically the score isn’t the most memorable and the mix of Broadway styles doesn’t quite suit the youthful energy of the performances. That said, this is an incredibly slick production with exceptional singing from the entire cast and some brilliant dancing from the ensemble that adds colourful vibrancy.

It’s hardly the most serious show on Broadway, but sometimes some well-polished silliness is exactly what you want. The original film will likely be more enduring, but Mean Girls on Broadway is totally fetch – even if you’re not wearing pink.

4/5

Watch: Mean Girls runs at the August Wilson Theatre, Broadway, until March 2020.