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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

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald ★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Arctic ★★★★

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Released: 5 December 2018

Directed by: Joe Penna

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir

Reviewed by: Lauren Tina Brady

An expanse of white as far as the eye can see, gently sloping mountains in the horizon, a polar bear pads silently across the snow, pausing briefly to gaze back at the watching man across the valley.

At first Arctic reads as a classic survival narrative; the basic man vs. nature conundrum. I’d recently seen The Mountain Between Us, which draws some very obvious similarities; plane crash, hostile snowy environment, a great expanse needing to be crossed for a chance of survival. However, unlike relying on the pairing of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba for context,  Arctic’s dialogue is bare. This is largely due to the fact that there is only the protagonist for the first third of the film, played by Mads Mikkelsen.

At first it appears to lull you into that false sense of security of knowing exactly how this works out; he sticks to a routine of catching fish, laying out black rocks spelling ‘help’ against the snow and signalling for nearby aircraft. However, crucially, we don’t know who he is. He speaks very little, in both Danish and English. He offers no information to help us piece together a backstory and remains an enigma throughout, which feels fresh. The character becomes more than a person; he becomes the flicker of hope for survival, the spectrum of emotions that occur in the darkest of hours.

There is plenty of drama to keep us on the edge of our seats; he has a chance of escape quite early on – a small helicopter has spotted him and attempts to make it’s way towards him in strong winds leading to a crash. There are two people on board; one is killed with the other, a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), who survives but is badly hurt and must be cared for. Suddenly the odds of both surviving are halved; the danger is intensified.

Here is a tale of endurance over survival. This is where Mikkelsen excels; he digs deep to portray every possible emotion through a gruelling and ice-cold journey. He is silent but his face says everything. I laughed in delight, I wept quietly. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.

It’s a feat for Joe Penna, directing his feature film debut. See it for Mikkelsen, stay for the sensitive direction and the stunning cinematography.

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