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Dying Laughing

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Director: Lloyd Stanton, Paul Toogood

Released: 16th June 2017 (UK)

Stars: Stephen K. Amos, Dave Attell, Sandra Bernhard, Jo Brand. Frankie Boyle, Billy Connolly, Steve Coogan

Reviewer: Ren Zelen

Stand-up comedy can be a distinctly unfunny business, as the documentary Dying Laughing, by British directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, might attest.

Stanton and Toogood have managed to assemble a very diverse group of comedians to recall their experiences – British and American, male and female, white and black, Latino, straight, gay; all have stories which relate specifically to their identities. The documentary boasts a vast array of talent, from acknowledged successes like Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Connolly, to relative newcomers like Amy Schumer and Grant Cotter.

Stanton and Toogood probe their subjects on a range of topics which reveal the unglamorous reality of professional comedy, where lonely hotel rooms, mismanagement, hostile crowds, sexism, racism and ageism breed loneliness, insecurity, and, in some cases, alcohol and substance abuse.

There a cliché about how ‘clowns’ are often the saddest of people, but suicides, most recently of Robin Williams, a multiple award winner, with worldwide fame and fans in and out of the business, again brought the notion to the forefront. A film like Dying Laughing is timely, focusing as it does on the hardship, alienation and misery of choosing a life devoted to making people laugh.

One of the documentary’s more fascinating insights is its exploration of the relationship between comedian and audience. Another cliché is that people who want to perform on stage are attention seekers, yet many of these stand-ups describe their approach to the audience as being defined by an underlying antagonism. Jerry Seinfeld explains that he is not seeking the audience’s approval per se, but rather their submission.

There is much discussion about what it means to be a comedian and about perceptions regarding the nature of comedy. We learn from all of the interview subjects, that the trick in performing comedy, like most performance art, is to make it look easier than it actually is.

The initial task of the comedian is merely to make an audience feel that they are worth listening to, and the various methods used to achieve that end prove enlightening. Much of the comic’s techniques are a mix of basic psychology, instinct, and hard-won experience.

There is usually not much in the way of real spontaneity, however it might appear, (as Eddie Izzard can confirm) and one of the most interesting stretches of the film deals with hecklers, and how these various talents choose to deal with those loudmouths intent on disrupting the flow of their act and the attention of the audience.

Another section deals with the comedians’ first experience of being in front of an audience. A surprising number of them admit that their first set had them totally losing self-control and degenerating into babbling or even blacking out. There are inevitably tales of drying up and dying onstage. Yet they were compelled to go back and do it again. All agree (including Gary Shandling, to whom the film is dedicated) that if you’re not able to come back from a profoundly humiliating experience, then then this career is not for you.

They insist, however, that these events, although painful, are also essential to the learning process.  As Joan Rivers said, “It doesn’t get easier, you get better”. Being a good comedian is as much about the ability to bounce back from failure as it is about having the determination to succeed.

Dying Laughing, although populated mostly by talking heads, does manage to be decent cinema. Stanton and Toogood present the interviews in black and white, while the additional footage of comedy clubs, cities and rural byways is in colour. Paired with specific, minimal sound design, this creates a unifying sense of narrative.

The film is not a ‘how-to guide’ to becoming a comedian; these comics are speaking from personal experience and dispensing with rose-tinted glasses. If there is a thesis, it is that comedy is a difficult and demanding business which can take its toll emotionally and psychologically, and if, as Shandling affirms, you don’t feel a “calling” for it, it’s absolutely not worth doing.

However, the film is not a depressing experience – these people are mostly success stories – they happen to be some of the best and funniest in their field. They may be talking about painful trials and tribulations they went through, but they learned lessons along the way. It is impossible for them to talk for an amount of time and not insert some amusing anecdotes and jokes.

These subjects are apparently acutely aware of the weird, individualistic, unique nature of their job, and although one should not expect Dying Laughing to be a ‘start to finish laugh riot’, it can certainly be viewed as a very black comedy.

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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