Between Two Ferns: The Movie 2019 ****

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Is it too late for Netflix to bring the funny? With Amazon investing billions in established IP like Lord of the Rings, it seems perverse that Netflix’s latest big investment is decades-old episodes of Seinfield to complement decades-old episodes of Friends. Not that these shows aren’t great, but they’re placeholders for new comedy that’s yet to appear. Tapping into existing comedy like Joel McHale didn’t work, even though his show had some great stuff in it, so thisharnessing of popular content from Funny Or Die seems like a step towards  giving Netflix an identity based on putting smiles on faces.

Zach Galifianakis has been ploughing an amusing furrow with his talk-show parody Between Two Ferns, originally Betwixt Two Ferns as he mentions in Scott Aukerman’s expanded reboot. There’s elements of Ali G as Galifianakis says and does exactly what an interviewer should not, drawing attention to himself, mis-representing his guests, and just being plain rude; there’s plenty of big names willing to show themselves as good sports. This time around, it’s pretty clear that there was an Avengers movie sending a roster of names to the set; Benedict Cumberbatch, Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson keep a straight face while names, acting talents and personal quirks are insensitively discussed.

There’s also a fresh frame; Funny Or Die boss Will Ferrell closes down the set after it gets destroyed during a sprinkler disaster that nearly drowns a game Matthew McConaughey. Galifianakis and his team head cross-country to find stars and interview them in their homes, and there’s some neatly developed sketches that turn the format on its head; a one-night stand with Chrissy Teigen leads to a troubled visit from husband John Legend. Otherwise, it’s fun to see Jon Hamm, Peter Dinklage, and perennial Netflix self-parodist Keanu Reeves allowing pot-shots at themselves; the good humour is infectious.

The shortness of the interview sections works a little against the premise, but Between Two Ferns: The Movie works far better than, say Ali G In Da House in that it stays true to the interview-based origins of the conceit. And at the centre is a strong comic character; Galifianakis is vain, downtrodden, pretentious, snarky and not as smart as he thinks. There’s mileage in the way he takes down celebrities; in an age when few interviewers pack a punch, Between Two Ferns offers fake takedowns of today’s ‘hot idiots’ in entertaining fashion.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80243600?source=35

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Best Before Death 2019 *****

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Anyone who has been following the continuing adventures of Bill Drummond will keenly anticipate Best Before Death, a new documentary which finds the artist, retiring pop star, art terrorist and general free thinker in fine fettle. The standard-issue information on Drummond is that he was a driving force in the KLF, with a slew of number one singles and a notoriety gained by burning a million pounds as a performance art event. Since that event, which Drummond says he now regrets, he’s ploughed a fascinating furrow as a creative force, but not a creative force interested in making work for New York art dealers to sell ; he’s not seeking validation from the elite. In short, Drummond is an ideal subject for a documentary, and Paul Duane’s film, a co-production between Rook Films, Media Ranch and the Scottish Documentary Institute, doesn’t let him down.

The film-makers share space with the artist on two legs of an ongoing global event, the 25 Paintings world tour which is scheduled to take Drummond to various locations from 2014 to 2025. We catch up with him circa 2016 in Kolkata, India and Lexington, North Carolina where he busies himself with tasks; getting a haircut, making soup, building a bed, banging a drum as he crosses a bridge, shining shoes. The public encountered are bemused, but also interested; part of the appeal of what Drummond is doing is not only what these actions might mean to him, but what they might mean to those who happen upon his art by chance. Some are happy to accept his simple gift of a cake; others, notably a driver, can’t get over Drummond’s previous pop career, and eagerly ask if he’s ever worked with Will Smith. It’s clear Drummond is unimpressed with such questioning, but also to his credit that such awkward moments are left in the film to created a rounded picture of what he does.

There’s an element of penance about the behaviour captured here. I interviewed Drummond for a national newspaper a few years back, and he offered to visit readers in their houses and make soup for them; he’s not building walls of mystique but breaking them, although he also voices fears about what that deconstruction might bring. He alludes to personal reasons for his actions; ‘addressing my relationship with women’ is how he terms it, and there’s mention of seven children with four partners.

But such clues are not prescriptive; there’s any number of potential meanings for Drummond’s actions, and Best Before Death is more than the sum of it’s parts. If you question what Drummond is doing, and why, you might as well question your own daily activities and ask if they have more or less meaning. Drummond is a teacher of sorts, a man who leads by example, but doesn’t attempt to be a role model. He pays attention to the signs he sees as he visits a shopping centre café, he experiments with life by listening to music in alphabetical order. Drummond is a fascinating figure, and spending 100 minutes in his company is a refreshing, revitalising experience that’s essential viewing for those familiar with his explorations of spaceship earth, and an ideal introduction to his wonderful world and how he sees it.

Bill Drummond will be touring the UK with Best Before Death, and performing a play, White Saviour Complex, with Tam Dean Burn, alongside each screening.

2019 SCREENING TOUR DATES (UK)

MONDAY 23rd SEPT LONDON, PICTUREHOUSE CENTRAL
TUESDAY 24th SEPT OXFORD, PHOENIX
WEDNESDAY 25th SEPT FACT LIVERPOOL
THURSDAY 26th SEPT HYDE PARK PICTUREHOUSE, LEEDS
FRIDAY 27th SEPT DUBLIN, IRISH FILM INSTITUTE
SATURDAY 28th SEPT BELFAST, QFT
MONDAY 30th SEPT BRIGHTON, DUKE OF YORKS
TUESDAY 1st OCT HACKNEY PICTUREHOUSE
WEDNESDAY 2nd OCT CAMBRIDGE, ARTS PICTUREHOUSE
THURSDAY 3rd OCT NORWICH, CINEMA CITY
FRIDAY 4th OCT YORK, CITY SCREEN

The Kiss of The Vampire 1963 ***

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Don Sharp’ 1963 vampire movie for Hammer was one of the first horror films this critic saw, and probably gave an unrepresentative sample for what was to come next. While most horror films go for the jugular, Sharp wasn’t a genre fan, and he constructs his film very differently from the Hammer norm. The story is fairly familiar; a young couple Gerald and Marienne (Edward De Souza and Jennifer Daniel) find their car has broken down in turn of the century Bavaria, and happen on a vampire cult led by the sinister Dr Ravna (Noel Willman). Van Helsing-lite Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans) is on the case, staking out a coffin-bound vampire in the bloody opening sequence, and not afraid to use black magic against the vampire hoards in a dramatic finale. Between these two set pieces, there’s a very slow burn as letters are delivered by carriage, cars take weeks to repair, and proceedings generally unfold at the speed of a rain-interrupted test match. The Kiss of the Vampire is in colour, which is notable in that it looks fantastic with all manners of greens and golds, and the genteel pace gives it a unique flavour; it’s rare to praise a horror for earnestness and conviction, but that’s what Sharp’s film has. An ideal ‘first horror movie’ for curious children, The Kiss of the Vampire may be tame by today’s standards, but it’s also a fun example of a template that got bogged down in sex, violence and derivative ideas. It’s also clearly the template for Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers; the richly-textured  masked ball scene in particular.

Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties 2004 ****

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‘I’m not doing the ugly American thing,’ says Garfield (Bill Murray) in this souped-up sequel to 2004’s pretty awful Garfield, which takes the feline sour-puss off in a much more plot-driven direction and generates a good few laughs in the process. As the title suggests, Tim Hill’s film used Charles Dickens as a jumping off point, although The Prince and the Pauper’s dual protagonist is also a clear inspiration. Garfield stows away with his doggy-pal Odie when his own heads to London on holiday, but unknown to them, lookalike Prince (voiced by Tim Curry) has been exiled from his castle after inheriting it; the nefarious Lord Manfred Dargis (Billy Connolly) is responsible. When Garfield meets Prince, predictable music-hall mirror gags abide, but there’s also plenty of life in the minor characters, with Ian Abercrombie, Roger Rees and Lucy Davis all having a laugh. A Tale of Two Kitties was less than enthusiastically received in 2004, but it looks much brighter in the light of cheap imitations like The Queen’s Corgi; predicable gags like Garfield getting chased by palace guards while shouting ‘The British are coming!’ or Garfield’s doppelganger saying ‘I used to be formerly known as Prince’ hit exactly the right spot. And the perennially underused Connolly shines in a role presumably intended for, and rejected by John Cleese; the Glasgow comic throws himself into the role of thwarted wannabe aristocrat with genuine glee.

Ad Astra 2019 *****

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The title means ‘to the stars’; James Gray’s Ad Astra is the director’s best film to date, a sprawling road movie in space that’s huge in scope yet offers tight personal focus. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) recovers quickly from a substantial fall caused by a cosmic blast, and is recruited to travel from the earth to the moon, from the moon to Mars, and then to one further destination, some 21 billion miles from home.

Via space monkeys and lazer-gun toting pirates, McBride arrives the remnants of previous mission the Lima project, which seems to be the source of the potentially world-ending energy. This is a familiar Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now up the river scenario, simplified but not minimalized by having the Lima under the control of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is also Roy’s father. Roy’s emotional reaction to universe-changing yet private events is closely monitored, and there’s a specific moral about the nature of emotion; Ad Astra is a thoughtful film in the vein of Interstellar or Solaris, but has the visual pizazz and appeal of Gravity.

As in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Pitt excels as a man out of time, and out of step with the world around him. But he also exudes a noble professionalism that makes Roy McBride a classic cinematic hero, and the set pieces, particularly an assault on a departing spacecraft, are intense to watch. A technical marvel, Ad Astra is a brooding sc-fi drama that’s substantially more than it’s beautifully wrought parts.

A Star is Born 1954 ****

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With 2018’s remake still ringing in our ears and a Renee Zellweger biopic opening soon to kick off the coming 2019 awards season, this 1954 comeback for Judy Garland is essential viewing, even if the running time of the restored version is a punishing three hours plus. Garland has become known as a gay icon, but she meant a lot to a mainstream audience, and George Cukor’s musical drama gives her plenty of opportunity to belt them out, notably the celebrated and extended Born in a Trunk number. Given her own issues with alcohol and drugs, it’s tricky to watch Garland as the upcoming ingénue while Mr Norman Maine (James Mason) falls apart; with only one musical feature after this (the maudlin I Could Go On Singing), A Star Is Born marked peak Garland, whereas Mason had highlights like North by Northwest and Lolita to look forward to as well as a career stretching out to the 1980’s.

Garland doesn’t always look comfortable here; one of the ironies of the A Star is Born films is that the leads are never ingénues, but established divas, and Garland seems more on message as Vicky Lester than Esther Blodgett. This restored version, with still frame sequences and alternate versions, gives the impression of a chequered production, with Cukor not involved in several sequences; as in the 1936 version, Hollywood is seen as somewhat venal, and the way that business interferes with private life is well caught. All four A Star In Born films have their merits, but taken as a quadrilogy, it’s interesting to see how they reflect the changing nature of male-female relationships. Normal Maine does not snort coke, ride a motorbike, play Glastonbury, attend SNL or urinate in his own pants, but he’s still a toxic male, even when played with enormous charm by Mason. And this is Garland’s show; fans of Judy will want to see her swing successfully for the fences here in a performance that fascinates because of how it does, and does not, reflect the truth of her troubled career.

Hustlers 2019 ****

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One magazine is going with ‘the most important film of the year’ for Hustlers, which would be a pretty damning condemnation of the inconsequential quality of much of the year’s films. Hustler feels like the latest reaction to the MeToo era, and creating crime movies with a ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’ vibe. With credits for both ‘Stripper consultant’ and ‘Wall Street Consultant’, at least the production has done some due diligence on the subject in hand, and it shows.

Hustlers follows on from Oceans 8 (awful) and Widows (better) as a number of female star names join forces to make a buck and beat the system, with various male antagonists in their way. Based on an article and taking some inspiration from a real story, writer/director Lorne Scafaria’s film doubles-down on the bitches-get-riches formula, keeping the stakes small and realistic; Constance Wu from Crazy Rich Asians is Oliver to Jennifer Lopez’s pole-dancing Fagin, teaching her how to dope strip-club clients with a mixture of Ketamine and MDMA while the girls cleans out their bank accounts. Of course, their clients are Wall Street scumbags, so Hustlers feels that the victims deserve all they get, and it’s only when Wu’s character shows mercy to one client that things fall apart. Hustlers does seem to have a sociological statement up its sleeve; that women, given the chance, will be as greedy as men; paying granny’s medical bills is the initial motivation, but funky expensive shoes and handbags prove to be the real undoing of Lopez’s gang.

Much as I Tonya took the clichés of the Scorsese gangster movie and revitalised them by having a female point of view, Hustlers is a female-version of Goodfellas, the fun is watching a gang come together and fall apart due to greed. Pop stars Cardi B and Lizzo have brief cameos to add value, and Usher manages a brief cameo as himself in which he manages to enter a nightclub and say his own name, pretty much the level of achievement that might be expected of a five-year old in a nativity play. But Wu and Lopez have lots to do, and they do it with great style; Lopez’s dancing is pretty sensational, and she’s got her career back on track here after the hilariously awful Second Act. The punchlines can be summed up in two lines the two lines; ‘’ Hurt people hurt people’ and ‘motherhood is a mental illness’. Hustlers looks at women, greed, crime and money, and it’s an absorbing mix of Goodfellas and Flashdance; a big hit is one the cards, and deservedly so, it’s a big, flashy, entertaining movie that poses a few interesting moral questions alongside the handbag porn.