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Secret Cinema presents William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet ★★★

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Release: 8th-25th August 2018

Directed By: Fabien Riggall

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes

Reviewed By: Van Connor

“I may not be funny, but I know wine!” declares Rob*, a chartered surveyor from Grays to his partner and their couple friends. Kelsey, meanwhile – a quite intoxicated dental hygienist – would like to share a frankly uncomfortable number of pubescent memories with everyone in earshot. Rob’s in front of us, Kelsey behind, and, since we never directly spoke to either of them at any point during Secret Cinema’s latest dose of “experiential cinema” – Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 reimagining of Romeo and Juliet – and we’re nearly bankrupt by the time it even starts, you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that this is one of those events that truly proves bigger certainly isn’t better.

If you’re unfamiliar with Secret Cinema, the basic gist is the creation of an immersive environment in which to catch your favourite movies. Classics such as Back to the Future, Dirty Dancing, and Blade Runner have previously been bestowed the magic touch of creative Fabien Riggall, with the feverish anticipation for Romeo + Juliet signifying that Luhrmann’s iconic 90s flick has, too, earned itself bonafide classic status. Truthfully, on watching the film back now two decades later, it genuinely holds up as the work of a genuine auteur – to say nothing of Leo’s introduction doubling retroactively as the public unveiling of a true blue movie star. The Secret Cinema treatment of it, however, emerges far more disappointing.

Having come across a wealth of decidedly negative feedback online (and via friends) in the days leading up to our Wednesday evening visit, we’d wisely decided to get to our designated meeting point (directly outside Acton Town station) with time to spare. It was a wise call, and – though the event would noticeably increase in population by what seemed to be every quarter hour (Secret Cinema employs staggered entry for seemingly this reason) – our guided fifteen minute walk to the event proper at Gunnersby Park was met with only minor queuing and waiting. “Were the negative reviews just the ramblings of haters brought on by bad weather?” we asked ourselves. To an extent, it would transpire. Secret Cinema themselves have instead crafted an entirely new set of problems – the most undeniable of which is the sudden upscaling of both scale and subsequent cost.

The vision behind it all is unquestionable, with Riggall ostensibly creating an outright festival around the fandom of Luhrmann’s classic – complete with diagetic stage-shows, an actual drag club, and even a rap battle between several eerily well-cast actors as the instantly recognisable characters. For all of that vision and reverence for the source material, however, Secret Cinema has this time around ditched the element that made it so unbeatable to begin with – namely incorporating the guests themselves into the narrative of which they’re so clearly a fan.

Previous events have always adopted the position of guests effectively serving as background extras to the film being brought to life around them, with 28 Days Later, to name one, going to the extreme of separating the guests by gender and… well, if you’ve seen the movie you can hazard a guess. If not, watch 28 Days Later. Just cos – it’s a great movie. As indeed is Romeo + Juliet, but it makes for a far less involving event, as it’s really nothing more than a vaguely interactive fairground topped with an outdoor screening. It’s a great fairground, sure, and that rap battle’s fun as hell, but for the sizeable dent it’s going to put in your wallet, it’s definitely at the more extreme end of fandom.

Did I mention there are rides? There are! In keeping with the Verona Beach template, there’s a carousel and a ferris wheel. Heck, there’s even a hook-a-duck game. Don’t get too excited though, as you’ll need to pay for each of the rides with a £3.50 token, and if you have any delusions about getting anything out of the ducks, brace yourself for the tiered system that can genuinely see you spending a little south of £20 for a “medium” prize. By this point, you’ll probably want to try and drown your sorrows at least a little whilst you wait the three hours for the movie to begin, refresh yourself before venturing round the surprisingly repetitive (yet wittily titled) themed stalls. Forewarning: sharpen those debit cards. Cos they’re about to bleed you dry.

Owing to driving, I ordered a simple Diet Coke for the princely sum of £2.50. Resigning myself to the reality that this 90p can coming with a near two hundred and fifty percent markup, you can imagine how much it then stung when – during the later drag club experience – I ordered two Diet Cokes only to see the same size can split into two ice-stuffed plastic cups and be slapped with a straight-faced bill for a fiver. “Let it go”, I thought. “It’s an evening out.”

That being said, such access came after what can only be described as a game of psychological warfare with the (apparently unpaid) cast who doubled as gatekeepers for the club – itself to one side of the enormous outdoor custom screen. If the goal is to obtain a simple cardboard invite, by god do they make you work your ass off for it – though, at least the atmosphere inside is a positive one. Even if most present have been charged 500% more than a newsagent would for something as complex as a soda.

Both the drink and the intoxication elements would rear their heads again before the film would begin, with a last minute bevvie-run seeing a farcically drunk bartender forced to down the drinks he got wrong (“he does this every round!” a young woman explains) before knocking mine over entirely. Still, at least he only charged £2.50 a can.

It’s then time to take your seats for the big show. Or, you assume it is. Truth be told, there’s no audible prompt telling you as much – it’s just that the small scale theatrics you can see taking place on the distant stage are slowly ramping up in spectacle. I say “in the distance” because, you see, they don’t bother to show any of this on the enormous screen behind them, making it a trifle difficult to catch any of it once everyone’s begun to sit down.

“Begun” being the keyword. Remember: there’s no prompt that the show’s about to begin, and – since Secret Cinema typically utilise their actors in a silent reenactment capacity during the film itself (it’s a quirk, but it works), what you wind up with is actors legging it through a seated crowd whilst a large number of them are still trying to find where they put their blankets down two hours earlier. One of the actors stumbled and fell mere metres from us. They shook it off without breaking character and carried on like a trooper, but there’s surely a health and safety factor there at the very least. And you risk stepping on my lukewarm £2.50 Diet Coke at your own peril, sir.

Once you’re into the film, however, all of the woeful shortcomings fall away, and you’re left with a crowd who (mostly – I’m looking at you, Kelsey) really just want to kick back with their friends to quote and sing along. It’s an infectious feeling, there’s no denying, and one that’ll win over even the staunchest cynic, I’m sure. Like literally any outdoor screening, though, it’s those like Kelsey and Rob who seemingly set out to torpedo the fun. And the staff couldn’t care less. They won’t bother either unless they have the audacity to take their phones out of the duly-provided cellophane wrappers. Priorities and all that.

That’s the rub. It feels like Secret Cinema grew up and became kind of a dullard. Secret Cinema’s no longer your friend in the Metallica t-shirt with the piercings, it’s instead settled down and got a mortgage, concerned with financial planning and remembering to pick up the No Nails from B&Q. It’s a bloody good time if you can afford it (I can – I just begrudge spending what could work out up to £150 on something without USB ports for an evening’s entertainment) but Secret Cinema’s Romeo + Juliet is ultimately a fan convention with an outdoor screening component. There’s nowhere near enough to it to fill the three hours you’re given to take it all in, and – since you’re told not to take your phone out of the packaging and journey to Mordor every time you want a smoke (including you, vapers) – that’s a lot of time to kill with no option but to retrace your steps.

Romeo + Juliet’s a good time, but it’s far and away one of the least impressive Secret Cinema events to date. If you’re a fan, go, but be sure that debit card’s good to go. If you’re not, you should most assuredly stay away. And if you’re Kelsey – I’m glad your boobs came in eventually. Fourteen sounds like it was rough and I know you waited. Rob – you’re not funny. Staff – shut people up in future.

*Names have been changed for anonymity.

Secret Cinema presents William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet runs from August 8th-25th, 2018 in London. Visit the official site for tickets and more information, and check out the trailer below.

 

Keeper of Lola M. Bear. Film critic for Movie Marker, TalkRADIO, and others. Producer of podcasts. Skechers enthusiast and blazer aficionado. All opinions my own.

Featured Review

Hurricane ★★★

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Released: 7th September 2018

Directed By: David Blair

Starring: Iwan Rheon, Milo Gibson

Reviewed By: Van Connor

What is it about a good old brim ’n’ bluster war tale that lets a bit of charm and a whole heap of cheekiness carry a movie? There’s a bit more to David Blair’s Hurricane than that, but the prominence of its cheek ’n’ charm approach is undeniable. From the moment Game of Thrones baddie Iwan Rheon struts his way through a daring escape from the Nazis, the fun’s on for this engagingly peppy and likeable true story.

 This tight and tidy hundred and ten minute war story concerns the  formation of the RAF’s 303rd squadron in the wake of their exile from Poland, and the prejudice afforded them by their British allies. “England needs all the help it can get,” Rheon’s Zumbach explains; his fellow pilots, however, are more interested in seeing them remain on the ground. Add into this mix the friendship of a group of young female war clerks – including a rather fine performance by Stefanie Martini – and the stage is set for the 303rd to prove themselves worthy of history.

It’s not entirely unlike Red Tails, with the tale of Tuskagee airmen and their treatment by American pilots sharing similar beats. As you’d expect from any war story, there’s a lively cast of supporting players bringing up the ensemble – including winning turns from Marcin Dorocinski and Krystof Hádek – and even an amusingly thankless part for the token yank, in this case a role fulfilled by Milo “son of Mel” Gibson. Rheon’s the star here, though, with swagger and charisma to match the admirably-produced (for what’s presumably a lean budget) fireworks going off in the skies above them.

Blair helms with an able hand. He’s noticeably more confident in the dramatic quotient of the tale, but is aided immeasurably by some impressive VFX work. A misjudged score by Laura Rossi proves periodically distracting, though, its tone faintly too whimsical and overblown to remain in keeping with the smaller scale sensibilities that keep Hurricane focused and confidents. It’s down to a deadpan sense of humour that Hurricane ultimately takes flight, piloted largely by the charms of Rheon and a game cast, and emerging rather an endearing World War II biopic.

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Featured Review

Final Score ★★

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Released: 7th September 2018

Directed By: Scott Mann

Starring: Dave Bautista, Pierce Brosnan

Reviewed By: Van Connor

If you’ve ever surfed the wasteland that is the home platform-centric side of post-nineties action – that void off to the side of where the mainstream were being distracted by Bourne movies and Michael Bay – you might have caught the faint whiff of a particularly nasty little actioner back in 2009 by the name of The Tournament. Essentially a Playstation-plotted Contest of Champions romp, the tight-and-tidy beat ‘em up made director Scott Mann a fleeting name to watch out for; fleeting only because his rather forgettable sophomore effort, Heist – which starred Robert de Niro and Dave Bautista – came and went with none of the same fanfare. Now he’s back, and (to put it in genre terms)  he’s out to make Die Hard. Unfortunately, he’s landed closer to Sudden Death.

OK, that’s unfair. Call it two-thirds of the way between Sudden Death and Under Siege 2 (remember how that was subtitled Dark Territory? That got lost to history) with all the individual plot mechanics of Die Hard. Mann reunites with Bautistae, with the WWE-star-turned-surprisingly-loveable-actor starring, of course, as Navy SEAL Uncle Mike,   who’s suffering from one of those failed missions that’s left him minus his best friend, but plus a fallen bro’s widow and daughter, who he visits in London on a regular basis. 

Uncle Mike’s  ‘niece’ is one of those fun Kim Bauer types who seem sharp as a tack in conversation, but then merrily wander into danger at the most inconvenient moments. She’s probably the wrong person for Uncle Mike to take to see West Ham play on a regular day, let alone one on which there happens to be a group of terrorists stealthily laying siege to the grounds in search of an amnesty-exiled former warlord. There’s a frankly hilarious pandemic-style simulation displaying “Projected Civil Unrest” if the terrorists get ahold of their quarry, but it mostly just plays like the whole General Radek element of Air Force One, without the sense of dread.

The intentions behind Final Score appear to have been, in their entirety: “they’re demolishing West Ham, let’s make Die Hard there”, but even there this rather overlong and startlingly uninteresting effort falls vastly far off the mark. Bautista is back on WWE Studios autopilot (we all ironically like 12 Rounds, calm down), and nobody else involved seems in the faintest bit interested in being there either. To pick far from the lowest hanging fruit, Pierce Brosnan – star of I.T. – has never been so visibly bored, and, in a movie featuring such wince-inducing penmanship as “why did my dad have to do it? Die…” it’s hard to begrudge him the right.

Meanwhile, a bevy of genre clichés litter a pretty uneventful go around the action wheel, featuring stops to pick up everything from Token Hot Girl Terrorist: Kink Edition to a panicky Argyle-like sidekick  that the script (boasting the talents of no fewer than three writers) uses entirely for the purposes of eyebrow-raising racially-driven humour. 

As far as the laugh factor goes, it’s here that Final Score actually gets one in the net, though  that depends on how alluring you find it to mock a feature this unironically silly. On that front, it’s no Geostorm, by any means – it’s not even a Gamer, certainly no Shoot ‘Em Up – but there are arguably enough mechanically-derived set pieces and plot beats in there to appease the baser wants of genre die-hards (sic). The final score’s not a great one, but if you’re game for Sudden Death all over again, it’ll scrape through for you on penalties.

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Movie Reviews

Crazy Rich Asians ★★★★★

A bright and endearing charmer

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Crazy Rich Asians

Released: 14th September 2018

Directed By: Jon M. Chu

Starring: Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh

Reviewed By: Van Connor

There’s two things you should know going in to Crazy Rich Asians. The first is that it’s title is intended as ‘crazy-rich’ Asians – as in ‘very rich’ folk from Singapore – and not in any way like the title of an Eli Roth movie about psychotic Singaporean billionaires. The second is that it’s one of those rare cases  of a genuinely great movie that lives up to  its own buzz. That’s right, Crazy Rich Asians is actually as good as the widespread adulation coming out of the US would have you believe; it is not only a cultural marker for representation (the entirely Asian cast list alone is jaw-dropping), but is a pretty terrific crowd-pleaser of a throwback rom-com to boot.

Meet our loveable romantic couple: NYU professor Rachel Chu (Fresh Off The Boat’s Constance Wu) and successful businessman Nick Young (erm… The Travel Show’s Henry Golding – that’s definitely a transition). She’s intelligent, adorkable, and a bit of an everywoman; he’s dashing, well-spoken, and comes from a family he says are “comfortable”. A lifelong friend’s wedding in Singapore, however, will soon prove how modest he’s being. Rachel is thrust into a world of socialites, money-hungry rivals, and, worst of all, a cut-throat matriarch she can’t possibly impress. As Rachel herself puts it, “it’s like I’m the villain of a bad soap opera.”

Far from soap opera-level entertainment, however, Crazy Rich Asians makes  a solid play for deeper terrain in the realm of the more upmarket  rom-coms of recent decades, such as My Best Friend’s Wedding or The Proposal. Its writing allows even its tertiary relationships to be explored, fuelled by a terrific cast that show up more than ready to play. In its best moments, Crazy Rich Asians feels like a demographic riff on Love, Actually, in equally great moments it’s an exercise in which comic is best at stealing the show (Awkwafina – and that took debate), and in others it’s Sandy Bullock meets Mean Girls. It wears the love of its own genre happily,  and it would take genuine effort to resist simply going along with the fun  in those moments when it’s forced by convention to drop by the requisite story beats of the average wedding movie or meet-the-in-laws comedy.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is a very sharp, very sweet, and very funny romantic comedy. Like all good rom-coms, its logic can be unravelled pretty quickly (the “surprise billionaire” element is staged as a twist, despite literally being in the name), but the strength of the writing behind it elevates the film far above the playing field of the average studio-produced romantic comedy. Uncompromising writing by The Proposal’s Peter Chiarelli and Life Unexpected’s Adele Lim ensures that this is very much a film belonging to its intended culture – doing so with unapologetic deference to custom and tradition, without stopping to patronisingly explain each social nuance.

One of the best movies of the year, a grand old time, and a social watermark too – Crazy Rich Asians is a bright and endearing charmer, brought to vivid life by sharp writers, Jon Chu’s engaging direction, a killer soundtrack made up of regional pop covers, and a technicolour show from cinematographer Vanja Cernjul. Prepare to fall head over heels.

It is Awkwafina. Definitely.

Maybe Ken Jeong.

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