Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Riding Lights: Acting Up

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It's been a little while since I've talked about Riding Lights on this blog, with the tour of Inheritance coming to an end this Saturday and its prestigious Summer Theatre School still four months away. But in the interim, there is a bit of good news from one aspect of this exquisite company which I have thus far failed to mention.
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Since September 2010, Acting Up! Youth Theatre has been providing theatre opportunity to young people aged 13 to 18 who have additional needs or disabilities. The group provides a space where people can learn new skills, socialise and build confidence, and its devised performanced have been growing in stature.
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Acting Up! was recently awarded a grant of £40,507 by Children in Need, which has ensured that it will continue to offer these services in the next few years. This is welcome news, given that the previous funding from Children in Need ended in 2014, with the programme only managing to continue thanks to interim funding from the Ed de Nunzio Charitable Trust. But while the running costs of the group are now guaranteed in the short-term, the funding doesn't cover any production budget for the shows - and that is where you come in.
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At this year's Riding Lights Members' Day (which I sadly couldn't attend), a goal was set to raise £2,000 for a production budget for Acting Up!, which could cover the cost of costumes, props and technical equipment. Of that amount, £431 was raised at the Members' Day and a further £1,020 has been secured to date. If you can give even a small amount to help make up the difference, you will be helping to change the lives of people who otherwise may not have had access to theatre and all the wonderful things that it brings.
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To make a donation to Acting Up!, visit www.justgiving.com/acting-up. If you need any extra incentive, this summer the group are devising a new sci-fi themed show, drawing inspiration from Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne and Kurt Vonnegut (further evidence of Riding Lights being daring and intriguing in its subject matter). I'll post more details of the show as they come to light, but until then spread the word and chip in if you can. Thank you.

Daniel

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

KIDS' STUFF: Shrek Forever After (2010)

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Shrek Forever After (USA, 2010)
Directed by Mike Mitchell
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas

When the quality of a film series has noticably declined, those responsible for the series often attempt to rectify things with a last-ditch sequel. Many of these last-ditch efforts try to recapture the spirit of the original, both to remind fans of how good the franchise once was and to put memories of the bad apple out of sight and mind. While it sounds like a cynical tactic, it can occasionally be very successful, as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ably demonstrates.
 
Shrek Forever After (originally titled Shrek Goes Fourth) is a somewhat successful attempt to achieve the same effect with the Shrek series. It is both a partial return to form and an admission on the part of Dreamworks that they really screwed up with Shrek the Third. While not everything about it is as remotely satisfying or as funny as the series was as its peak, it is also better than we had any right to expect, and is all things considered a decent way to say goodbye.
 
Certainly, the film is better than you might expect given the background of its director. Mike Mitchell did work as an animator on the second Shrek, as well as working as a story artist on the passable Monsters vs. Aliens. But his directorial output has been largely awful, from the schmaltzy Surviving Christmas to the painfully unfunny Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The relative success of this film is either a stroke of good fortune or a testament to the fact that film is a collaborate medium.
 
As far as its plot is concerned, Shrek Forever After is essentially an attempt to recapture the spirit of the first film via the narrative of It's A Wonderful Life. It has the same basic plot of Frank Capra's film, with a protagonist who despairs of what his life has become and who firmly believes that the world would be better off without him in it. Jimmy Stewart's suicidal tendencies have been commuted to angry, empty frustration, but the fact remains that Shrek is now effectively George Bailey.
 
To this end, all the elements of his life which Shrek has taken for granted are played out with a sense of detachment. All the integral elements of the Shrek canon - his love for Fiona, his friendship with Donkey, the taming of Dragon and so on - are restaged without him, creating a sense of unsettling familiarity. To children who are coming to the series for the first time, this will seem like a novel and compelling idea. For adults who have grown up with the series or remember Capra's film, it's more of a pleasant rip-off, lacking the overt sentimentality which for many renders Capra unwatchable.
 
One of the things the film does to justify this device is showing how depressing Shrek's life has become to warrant his wish with Rumplestiltskin. We might roll our eyes at how domesticity is so easily demonised, but few of us would wish to live our entire lives out as the "loveable lug" circus attraction that he has become. The film could have gone further with this, using Shrek to send up the vapidity of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but in the end it settles for the outburst at the birthday party and leaves it at that.
 
Scenes like this are clearly intended to poke fun at the series, showing that it can laugh at the commercial behemoth that it has become. But drawing attention to these features is a double-edged sword, because it also highlights how tame and ungamely the series and character has turned out to be. To use a musical analogy, it's a bit like listening to The Who play 'My Generation' today: you're impressed that the band can still belt it out, but it's also rather tragic to hear a 70-something sing "I hope I die before I get old."
 
The result of this is that all the funniest jokes in Shrek Forever After come with an unusual sense of sadness. It's quite a logical idea for Puss in Boots to have let himself get fat, but equally it feels like a desperate ploy in the absence of more meaningful characterisation. When the series restages key moments from the first film and then tries to surprise us, it's both a welcome alternative to repetition and an obvious thing to do. Take Donkey's attempts to woo Dragon: we know that some kind of deliberate punchline is coming, even if we can't be precisely sure what form it will take.
 
The most successful characterisation in the entire film is Fiona, who has regained much of the agency which she lost in Shrek the Third. The film might try and position her as somewhere between Braveheart and Joan of Arc, but she does eventually emerge as a woman of some emotional depth outside of her masculine trappings. Many films fall into the trap of believing that a strong female character is one who can simply behave like a man, and Mitchell deserves some credit for not reducing Fiona down to just another ogre.
 
To this end, the film benefits from the growing emotional bond between Shrek and Fiona. Unlike many other aspects of the film, it doesn't entirely suffer from an over-resemblance to the first film: here Shrek is actively trying to make Fiona fall in love with him, whereas in Shrek he was trying to do anything but. While the character dynamic is very predictable, it does become believable enough, so that by the time Shrek's day is up, we really feel for them.
 
While it is more emotionally resonant than the previous entry in the series, Shrek Forever After's attempts to send up fairy tales are just as half-baked. To its credit, it does solve one of Shrek the Third's biggest problems, having a villain who is convincing in both his motives and his methods. But while Rumplestiltskin himself is both memorable and funny, he's the brightest star in an otherwise ordinary firmament.
 
Like its predecessor, many of Shrek Forever After's fairytale touches feel derivative. The inclusion of the witches as sidekicks does feel like the film was trying to cash in on the continuing (if perplexing) popularity of Wicked. Others feel like blatant and misguided attempts to get down with the kids, offering break-dancing and hip-hop where Smash Mouth was once king. Turning the Pied Piper of Hamelin into a silent assassin is a pretty nifty concept, but he's severely underused and is reduced by the script to a brief and disappointing cameo.
 
The final problem that the film has to offer is the 3D. Like any number of films which were designed in 3D, there are numerous shots which exist solely to enable things to poke out of the screen - a well-worn and pointlessly pointy novelty. Whether it's the tracking shot through the window of the royal carriage or the broom chase inside Rumplestiltskin's castle, such shots are unnecessary and distracting - not what you want when your film's plot is already on shaky ground.
 
Shrek Forever After is as successful a film as we could possibly have hoped for, given all the baggage which it carries with it. Most if not all of the magic of the earlier films is a distant memory, and it's just as derivative as its predecessor in many respects. But its moments of humour and more resonant emotional core stop it from being completely pointless and hollow. To return to our musical analogy, it's like watching a once-great band struggle through one last rousing rendition of their greatest hits. You applaud politely at they leave the stage, but pray against there being any encore. 

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NEXT REVIEW: Bring It On (2000)

Thursday, 19 March 2015

REVIEW REVISITED: The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

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This is a reprint of my review which was first published on this blog in November 2014, with a number of minor revisions. My original review can be found here.

The Inbetweeners 2 (UK, 2014)
Directed by Damon Beesley & Iain Morris
Starring Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, Joe Thomas

I've spoken on many occasions about how screenwriters or novelists don't always make the best directors. As much as we bemoan a director's vision for a given film not gelling with that of the writer, when writers get behind a camera they often fail to grasp the difference between cinematic and literary storytelling. This is true of the cult classic Westworld, the would-be cult classic Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, and the coming-of-age drama The Perks of Being A Wallflower.
 
The Inbetweeners 2 sees Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, the creators of the TV series, stepping behind the camera for a film which bids farewell to the famous foursome. Just as the first film was an exception to the rule that all films based on British comedies are terrible, so this film is an exception to the rule that writers can't direct. While some of the comedy still doesn't belong, it is both an improvement on the first film and a fitting way to say goodbye.
 
The first big success of The Inbetweeners 2 is that it actually looks and feels like a film. This may seem an obvious point, but it's one that you can very rarely say about British comedy adaptations, both in the past and in recent times. While the production values of The Inbetweeners Movie were pretty decent, it still looked and felt like an extended TV episode. This is all-round more cinematic, with better compositions, a wider choice of angles and a glossier feel.
 
The explanation for this is not straightforward. Had Beesley and Morris jettisonned all the old crew upon taking the helm, it would be easy to put this transition down solely to their creative talents. But the film is shot by the same person as before (Ben Wheeler), edited by the same person (William Webb) and produced by the same person (Christopher Young, for Film4). Most if not all of the production team have done the bulk of their work in television rather than feature films.
 
The true explanation lies in a combination of creative freedom and an understanding of direction in terms of purpose. Directing a film is not just about making sure that all the constituent parts fit together in a workable order: it is about communicating a story, theme or idea with a clear and preferably unique voice. Not only do Beesley and Morris have more freedom following the success of the first film, but they have a clear idea of where they want to go, regardless of audience expectations.
 
The second big plus of The Inbetweeners 2 is that it adds depth and humanity to the characters. This is also one of the characteristics which makes it feel more cinematic: we actually see the characters grow in a meaningful way (well, meaningful enough) over a long period of time. This is something that can be done on both film and TV but in different ways; while TV episodes can space out and break up character development, on film it has to be much more seamless, as it is here.
 
The difference between this film and its predecessor is a dominance of character over situation. The Inbetweeners Movie was essentially a genre exercise: it dropped these characters into overly familiar surroundings and sat back to see what would happen. This film may share some familiar characteristics of episodes, particularly in the Splash Mountain scenes, but this time the characters drive any given situation and the progression from one scene to the next feels a lot more natural.
 
Most of the boys have an emotional arc which we can follow through the film and which makes them more rounded and believable. Will's relationship with Katie sees him disown his friends, only to realise the emptiness of both his prep-school friendship with her and the lifestyle that she and Ben have chosen to inhabit. His tirades around the camp fires are right on the money, puncturing both the pretentiousness of spiritual tourism and the egos of the people who take part in it.
 
Simon's relationshipwith Lucy (who has become a complete yandere) sees him finally stick up for himself when it comes to relationships; even if it's resolved in a rather convenient manner, he at least goes through the process of deciding who he values and why. Jay, arguably the least likeable character at face value, is developed the most when we discover his capacity for both remorse and genuine love. His insecurity and regret regarding Jane is very welcome and it prevents the film from repeating itself. The only one short-changed in this department is Neil; while arguably he's already happier than all the other boys, he's ultimately reduced to out-of-context comic relief.
 
The third big plus of The Inbetweeners 2 is that it is funnier than its predecessor. It's still every bit a gross-out comedy which treads the fine line between edgy and offensive, but there's much less of a reliance on set-pieces, and what set-pieces there are are much more memorable. With the log flume incident, it's as though Beesley and Morris saw Caddyshack, got to the infamous pool scene, and thought: "how can we make this even funnier?".
 
Many of the funniest moments in the film will simultaneously make you howl with laughter and grimace in disgust. The scene involving Neil in the pub with the dog may feature unconvincing prostethics, but for the brief glance we get (which is all we'll ever need), it does its job. The same goes for Will's falsetto singging around the camp fire, the aforementioned log flume incident, and Simon getting urinated on by Neil in the Outback.
 
While these scenes are funny, however some of the more sexual jokes are completely unnecessary. The scene where Simon is accused of being a paedophile is really uncomfortable; it's not attempting to say anything clever or expose any kind of absurd attitude, it's just plain gruesome and should have been cut. The same goes for the various mentions of rape which pop up over the running time. While the film holds back from out-and-out using sexual violence as a punchline, it seems content to use the word as a cheap laugh when it should be anything but.
 
There are other moments of the film which on deeper reflection don't make a lot of sense. The scene with the four boys holding hands in the Outback as they die of thirst is very touching, being somewhere between the existential loneliness of Walkabout and the incinerator sequence in Toy Story 3. But then you notice that the boys are avoiding their only source of shade, and leaning against a car which is roasting hot. It doesn't throw the film completely off-balance, but it's a niggle that lingers afterwards.
 
The Inbetweeners 2 is an improvement on its predecessor which merits its existence as a means of deepening the characters. Beesley and Morris both write and direct well, with better jokes (by and large) and a greater focus on the characters rather than the situations in which they find themselves. Just like its predecessor, it's not without its problems, but if this is the last we see of Simon, Will, Neil and Jay, then it's a fitting way to finish

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 NEXT REVIEW: Shrek Forever After (2010)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

COMEDY: Accepted (2006)

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Accepted (USA, 2006)
Directed by Steve Pink
Starring Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Blake Lively, Anthony Heald

National Lampoon's Animal House has a lot to answer for. Ever since John Landis' comedy became one of the biggest hits of the late-1970s, we have had to live with a steady trickle of second-rate comedies about high school or college students. While the level of edginess or rauchiness has greatly varied from film to film, the vast majority lack even the slightest degree of subtext, which is ultimately what made Landis' work distinctive and subversive.
 
In the post-American Pie landscape, this trend has further mutated, with all the retrograde sexual attitudes of the 1970s and 1980s coming back into plain sight under the misplaced notion that they are ironically funny or - heaven forbid - empowering. But for all the chauvinistic unpleasantness of Superbad, or any Judd Apatow film for that matter, they are at least memorably offensive. Accepted, on the other hand, is a largely forgetable film which isn't that funny and doesn't try hard enough.
 
When it comes to judging any film which is branded edgy or dangerous, there is a basic rule of thumb. The rule is that a film's actual amount of edge, danger, shock value etc. is inversally proportional to the number of times its creators or commentators claim that it is any of these things. If you constantly have to tell people that a film is scary, or shocking, or funny, it's increasingly unlikely that it can be any of these things. Quality speaks for itself, rather than needing every journalist and promoter in the land to shout about it.
 
This culture of the lady protesting too much, to borrow a term from Shakespeare, is a consequence of a film industry obsessively driven by marketing and strict adherence to convention. Every time a film comes out whose plot involves a fair amount of sex, it has to be presented as the rauchiest thing ever made, even if it clearly isn't. Just as Zac and Miri Make a Porno is actually very tame (at least by the standards of Boogie Nights or John Waters films), so Accepted is not a new Animal House or American Pie. Even by the low standards of so many of the films these two inspired, it's still very tame indeed.
 
To give the film some credit, there is a nice little idea at the heart of its attempts to be raunchy and broad. In its quieter moments, particularly towards its conclusion, Accepted does touch on how educational institutions often overlook potential talent on the grounds of tradition and social expectations. The film doesn't touch on this anything like as much as it could: it's much more Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj than Dead Poet's Society, or even Step Up. But equally it pays more than lip service to the notion, and that gives it some semblance of brains, if not heart.
 
In his seminal book On Liberty, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote: "Persons of genius are... more individual than any other people - less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character." You would have a hard time defining any of our leading characters here as geniuses, but the fact remains that they have potential which is being overlooked or squandered by the narrow-mindedness of the American education system. Certainly it's hard to argue that America would be better off with all of its students ending up like Hoyt Ambrose.
 
If you were feeling equally charitable, you could view Accepted as a successor to the anti-establishment films of the 1960s. Even if we take the rambling, foul-mouthed, elderly teacher out of the equation, the film has a somewhat beatnik quality to it, populated as it is by people whose creativity thrives when not constrained by the established ways of doing things. If you're looking for a mid-noughties equivalent of Howl or Kill Your Darlings, you definitely won't find it, but this merest hint of subtext is there for those who want to see it.
 
The film also deserves credit for giving us a young male protagonist who isn't a completely unlikeable, unpleasant slacker. In Superbad we hated the characters, finding them so gormless or obnoxious that it was hard to excuse, let alone like, what they were doing. Bartleby's not exactly as likeable as Flounder in Animal House (or anyone else in Animal House, for that matter), but he is at least well-intentioned as a character. His need to lie to his parents to make them proud is certainly one trait with which many can empathise.
 
But despite all these plus points, the fact remains that, in the end, Accepted is still a pretty weak film. And its biggest weakness of all, ironically, is that it feels uncomfortable going as far as it needs to in order to justify either its reputation or its premise. If you are setting up a story about a school in which everyone breaks the rules, you can't pull any punches with the amount of carnage or excess you're prepared to show. You can't promise us Alice Cooper's 'School's Out' and then give us a tea party.
 
The reasons for this, to bring us almost full circle, lie in the marketing. Animal House had a raw energy and a spirit to it because it came from the same youth it was depicting; it was made by people who, at the time, didn't really know what they were doing. Accepted, on the other hand, is the product of a committee of middle-aged men, who want the film to be edgy enough to make a good trailer, but not so outrageous that it will alienate its core audience. It's a bit like giving someone a brilliant, bright red Ferrari and then telling them that they can only drive it when it's foggy, so as not to hurt the feelings of other drivers.
 
Steve Pink is a director who, at least for the present, plays by the rules of the Hollywood machine. His earlier work as a writer, such as Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity, suggested someone who could bring something new to well-worn stories. But both here and on Hot Tub Time Machine, he has taken the executive's shilling and gone down the tried-and-tested route. While he's not unspeakably poor as a director, there's nothing particularly memorable or energetic about any of his compositions. Even though it's shot by Matthew F. Leonetti, who also shot Fast Times at Ridgmont High, it looks and feels like any other meat-and-potatoes teen comedy.
 
There are numerous points in its running time at which Accepted could and should have pushed things a little further, or gone for something that was a little more risqué. Teenage comedies of this kind don't always have to go down the Porky's route of just being gross or sexist; in fact, the film's ideas about the education system could have been a starting point to challenge such conventions. But even the biggest set-pieces involving destruction of property or swearing feel reined in, and as a result none of them are memorable.
 
A further problem with Accepted is its characters. Although our lead is relatively likeable (at least by the standards of similar films), none of the characters are distinctive enough to leave any impression after the film has finished. Some of the older actors are fleetingly memorable for being over-the-top, such as Bartleby's dad or Richard van Horne (Dr Chilton from The Silence of the Lambs). But the young cast, the people for whom we are meant to be rooting, are far too bland.
 
Jonah Hill's performance is a classic case in point. Hill's career has had its hits and misses, but his worst films (Superbad, The Sitter, Evan Almighty) have always been memorably bad. Here, on the other hand, he has very little to play with, neither excelling nor failing badly enough to make us watch him on a perverse level. His character generally fulfils the Flouder role from Animal House, being the socially awkward outcast who will never be properly accepted for who he is. But even with the girly scream and the jokes about his "weiner" (obvious but funny), he eventually blends into the background along with everyone else.
 
Accepted is a deeply forgettable film which demonstrates the problems with Hollywood's conservative approach to filmmaking. Had Steve Pink or any other director been given a longer leash, it could have been memorably outrageous, for better or worse. But as hard as it tries, it's still too tame and too boring to even risk challenging American Pie. As with so many modern Hollywood comedies, it's a slice of barely memorable disappointment which leaves a dull ache and then quickly fades.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

Monday, 9 March 2015

AnderCon is Go!

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Around this time two years ago, I was giving a little, well-deserved plug to PhoniCon, a new science fiction convention held at the Exeter Phoenix, where I used to DJ during my time on Phonic FM. Now I'd like to switch from sci-fi to my childhood love of Gerry Anderson and promote a different
convention from rather further afield.
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AnderCon 2015 is a celebration of Anderson's genius and artistic vision, which resulted in some of the most advanced TV shows of the time whose influence and popularity endure today. Over the course of two-and-a-half days in June, Leicester's cultural quarter (yes, there is such a thing) will be teeming with Anderson fans, keen to celebrate the past and look ahead to future projects.
If you even faintly remember Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet or Space: 1999, AnderCon is the place to be. There's tons of original puppets and props on display, and you could meet three of the original Thunderbirds cast to mark the show's 50th anniversary. But it's not just a nostalgia trip, with exciting previews of Ultramarionation's new show, Firestorm. It is not to be missed!
Anderson will be based at the Athena Leicester from Friday 12th to Sunday 14th June. Tickets are on sale now via AnderCon.co.uk, which also has full events listings and advice on how to get to the various venues hosting them. If you need any further convincing, check out this short message from Scott Tracy:
Daniel