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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

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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