Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Review: Stewart Lee - Basic Lee

Stewart Lee: Basic Lee
Oxford Playhouse | Monday, 30 January 2023

It's a cold, damp Monday night in Oxford, but the full-house crowd at the Playhouse theatre is in chipper spirits as the lights dim. Stewart Lee takes to the stage, bleached-out by the lights in scruffy black jeans, walking boots, an oversized black Teddy Boy jacket and bottle green polo shirt. The touring-version of his Basic Lee Edinburgh show from 2022, this is the opening night of a now-traditional week long residency in the city, with all performances sold out in advance.

Greetings out of the way, one of the first things Lee tells the audience is that this is a back-to-basics show - hence the title - lacking the overarching structure of his previous tours. The last part of this is of course untrue, but at this point the comedian has lain down the gauntlet for the audience to piece together the structure for themselves, albeit giving them a helping hand in the process. What Stewart means is that there's no specific and visible prop this time, be it an outsized Caffé Nero loyalty card or set manufactured from rolls of carpet or standup comedy DVD cases. Instead, the form here is the structure, and the structure is the form, with Lee's trademark rambling style flipping down callback-markers as it staggers through what it means to be a touring comic in 2023.


Lee does make overt references to earlier jokes in previous shows, usually commenting on the mechanics or expanding and adding to the joke as a self-aware reference, for audiences members who recall it from last time (and at a Stewart Lee gig, this means most of them). The attending crowd comes in for a gentle, non-directional ribbing of course as is standard, but without the theatrical vitriol we've seen previously. Unless, that is, you happen to be a patron looking at their phone during the performance, in which case it becomes rather more pointed*1.

Our host also makes prolonged and repeated references to in-theatre happenings (late arrivals, lighthearted heckles etc), and while Lee isn't necessarily one for extended improvisation, it will be interesting to see how this evolves over its 15-month run. The show in its present form is open to adaptation as the months pass (even with the ever-present first half disclaimer that there's no point in writing semi-topical material on a Monday which will be out of date by Friday). Segments on Fleabag and Barry Cryer will doubtless remain, by virtue of their timeless reliability to showcase Stewart's own finer talents.


But there's something about Lee, either in perceived or studied style, that craves the larger structure. Notwithstanding that his 'event' show format has been creeping upward for over a decade, it's also what the audience (okay, me) expect. And if tonight's lesson is that the shows can't all be hyper-focused comedic surgery then it's a one worth taking on board. But the end result is that Basic Lee isn't quite as satisfying as previous outings, even if it's no less entertaining*2.

On the whole this is a lot more relaxed than Lee's theme-based shows, and as such is a potentially good place to get new, casual, fans on board. Personally, I think I prefer the focused rage (faux or otherwise) of other recent pieces, but there is still an absolute joy in watching Stewart Lee be on top of his material without having to conjure tangible demons for the audience's amusement...

Basic Lee is at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 4th Feb, then tours the UK.
Tickets at StewartLee.co.uk

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 There were several of these moments in both halves of the show. Lee admits on-stage that he hates making direct eye contact during performances, essentially making it difficult to detect if he's actually addressing someone or if this is a routine designed to make people in the audience look round among themselves for the offending person. Nonetheless, I did see a phone-glow in my peripheral vision for one of his curt interjections, so it isn't all 'a bit'. [ BACK ]

*2 Spoilers, highlight-to-read: For what it's worth, I'd have happily had the first half's JK Rowling routine and the jazz-description in the second to be longer, if only because the patrons on either side of me weren't nearly uncomfortable or worn-down enough with the repetition... [/End] [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Review: The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans (spoilers. ish.)
Cert: 12A / 151 mins / Dir. Steven Spielberg / Trailer

Cinema is magic, and its creators are magicians. Steven Spielberg, for example, can make 2½ hours of quasi-biographical coming of age story feel like five*1. It's not that The Fabelmans drags, just that it does not let up.

Beginning in 1952, this is the tale of the young Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle / Mateo Zoryan) spanning twelve years of his life (hence the two actors) as his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) move to several cities across the US in an upwardly mobile spiral. Already fascinated by movies and process of film-making, this is massively disruptive for Sammy and his sisters (Keeley Karsten / Alina Brace, Julia Butters / Birdie Borria), and the movie tracks the weaving course of their lives and Sam's growth and self-discovery.


And it's fine. The story about a Jewish kid learning about the world and finding purpose in life through the art of translating ideas to celluloid is superb. The twee, mawkish, shrieking and overbearing soap opera which happens all around it, far less so. The two are intrinsically intertwined of course, and the film itself is named after the family unit, not the protagonist. My problem (and this is very much my problem as a viewer, not the film's as a creation) is that it's so sincere, all of the time. Your mileage will vary but most of the humour feels forced and most of the angst feels gleefully wallowing. I love Michelle Williams as much as anyone, but she's on Ten™ from the very first scene, a high-maintenance character in a film of domestic histrionics and it is draining to sit through.

The subplot with Seth Rogen's 'Uncle' Bennie is so telegraphed and then spelled-out as to be physically painful, and it's a shame since his character initially feels like a breath of fresh air - albeit a breath which is necessitated by the fug of Mitzi's constant drama. Paul Dano puts in a reliable performance as the family patriarch who only understands Science™, but the role demands relatively little of him as a performer, a charge which can be levelled at most of the supporting parts here.


The real ray of sunlight comes in the form of Judd Hirsch as 'actual Uncle' Boris, the cranky, scrunch-faced black sheep of the family who arrives gibbering in distorted syntax to everyone's consternation. He's also the only character here who effortlessly sees through the bullshit and understands Sam's attraction to the arts - better at that point than Sam does - and the sacrifices which may be required to attain greatness. He is this story's Yoda, and is in it for nowhere near long enough.

When we see Sam making films - the actual physical process of coordinating, directing and shooting - The Fabelmans is great. Unfortunately, this accounts for less than a third of the film's run-time. But this is the lesson of course: we can't dedicate ourselves completely to creativity because the admin of life will always get in the way to some degree. And we either learn to live with that, or we give up creating. The process of cinema is where science meets art, and Sam Fabelman and his story are the embodiment of that collision.

Steven Spielberg has many weapons in his armoury. Understatement is not one of them. The Fabelmans almost comes over as something that the director needed to get off his chest, rather than an insight-unveiling introspective.

A self-indulgent missive of this intensity is certainly forgivable from a director as accomplished as this, but probably only as a swan-song. Steven, however, seems far from done...*2

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 And while it's nice of the man himself to sit in what looks like a generic hotel suite somewhere and record a special pre-film message to audiences who have come out to cinemas to watch his latest epic, it feels notably strange that one of the world's greatest film directors has recorded one of the least convincing thank-you messages ever.[ BACK ]

*2 Which I'm not complaining about, by the way. I certainly don't get on with all of Spielberg's work, but the man's been responsible for enough absolute bangers for me to appreciate what he's capable of. Okay, very few of those bangers have been made this century, but hey... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 28 January 2023

Review: The Whale

The Whale
Cert: 15 / 117 mins / Dir. Darren Aronofsky / Trailer

Adapted for the screen by Samuel D Hunter from his 2012 play, The Whale brings us Brendan Fraser as Charlie, an online teacher of English and writing*1, trying to reconnect with his estranger daughter Ellie (Sadie Rink) before morbid obesity claims his life. Added to this is Liz (Hong Chau), a qualified nurse and carer who helps Charlie on an unofficial basis due to their years of close friendship. But the game is really set playing due to the unexpected arrival of door-to-door religious missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), whose past is not quite what it seems.

Another pleasingly odd film from A24, beautifully shot and presented in 3:4 aspect ratio just for the hell of it. You'd expect a movie set almost entirely in one dingy flat among the detritus of the housebound protagonist's life to be inherently claustrophobic, but Aronofsky manages to avoid that completely. The director perfectly captures the intense melancholy of the story without tipping over into outright despair. The film is nowhere near as bleak as it would be in other hands, but fair warning: it's also pretty far from uplifting.

The performances here are all they're cracked up to be, and more*2. Brendan Fraser brings his central character to life without asking for pity and without needing it*3. His chemistry onscreen with Hong Chau is utterly sublime. Although Sadie Rink and Ty Simpkins support excellently in a side-story which is almost independent from the main thread, it has to be said that the film's most interesting scenes are in the first act between Charlie and Liz. Everything after this is backstory and melodrama frankly, and the third-act arrival of Charlie's ex-wife Mary (the fantastic Samantha Morton) only exacerbates this. The nuts and bolts of the story itself feel far more pedestrian than the acting deserves. Despite Aronofsky's best efforts, I did not blubber.

The Whale is intensely watchable for its craft, but never seems to become more than the sum of its parts. But fair play to Sam Hunter, I did not see that Kill Bill reference coming...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Well, we're told Charlie's a teacher and we briefly see him taking classes, but he never seems to be actually teaching, just reciting trite platitudes to his obviously bored students. If I did a writing course and all I got from the tutor was "remember what you're writing about", "be honest" and "don't edit or revise, just publish", I'm pretty certain I'd be asking for my fees back. If anything it's more interesting that Charlie's not some brilliant, maverick teacher, just a fairly average one - but the film doesn't explore this (because to be fair, that's not what it's about). [ BACK ]

*2 Scenes of Charlie furiously munching his way through various courses of junk food to smother his pain are brutally frank and presented without apology, but never feel exploitative. That said, sufferers of Misophonia will be wanting to make a break for the fire exits; the sound design here is... haunting. [ BACK ]

*3 And aside from the superb acting, if the makeup and prosthetics teams of The Whale don't leave awards season with hernias from all the trophies they've been carrying home, there's no justice in the world... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Review: Unwelcome

Cert: 15 / 104 mins / Dir. Jon Wright / Trailer

Directed by Jon Wright, Unwelcome is the story of a young expecting couple in central London - Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) - who inherit a house from Doug's elderly aunt in rural Ireland. Upon arriving in the idyllic village, the pair are cautioned by neighbour Maeve (Naimh Cusack) that certain superstitious traditions have to be upheld. More pressingly though, repairs to their semi-dilapidated home are being carried out by local ne'er-do-wells The Whelan Family (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Chris Walley, Kristian Nairn and none other than Colm Meaney - the Poundland Brendan Gleeson). The incompatibility between city attitudes and countryside manners soon grinds everything to a halt as Maya and John begin to find out who their enemies really are...


Some movies struggle to balance all their ideas, feeling like they've been written by a committee. Others suffer because only one person was at the typewriter, unable to fully develop ideas or bounce them around to greater effect. Unwelcome is firmly in the second camp and, frankly, Uneven. The film teases its semi-demonic Powrie (or red caps / little-people) well enough throughout, but the backstory and methodology is too vaguely defined to really sell their malevolence to the viewer. There's plenty to enjoy for seasoned fans of mid-budget horror, but for everyone else the film will be markedly less satisfying.

It's perfectly cast, albeit for slightly undemanding roles (I certainly wish I could have seen the version of the film that Hannah John-Kamen seems to be acting in; it looks much better), and initially appears to be beautifully filmed with crisp, rich, warm tones from cinematographer Hamish Doyne-Ditmas. But then this look continues. And increases. Now I'm as guilty as the next reviewer of complaining about stylised desaturation these days, but this is too just colourful for the atmosphere it's trying to conjure. Even the night-scenes are lit up like an operating theatre...

Despite clearly sitting within a set budget it's not that the film feels cheaply made, but cheaply written. Penned for the screen by Mark Stay (from a story by him and the film's director), this begins in heavy-handed full-throttle and pretty much continues in this vein as even the 'friendly' people in the village seem inherently weird. But this isn't some London-phobic tale of outsiders being shunned by locals, we're just hanging out with a couple who can't catch a break. There's also a rich seam of dark comedy waiting to be mined out in the countryside, but for the most part the gags are DOA because of how needlessly harrowing the rest of the movie is.


The main problem is that once our heroes arrive in Ireland, the intense colour saturation lends the film a dream-like air, as in a video game or a badly shot soundstage pretending to be an exterior location. In this environment, it's impossible to introduce a credible threat since a sense of reality doesn't exist to be disrupted. Therefore, the only way to generate sympathy for Maya and Jamie is for the film to relentlessly punish them for misdemeanours they really haven't committed. Director Jon Wright clearly despises his characters, but would like you to stroke your chin at their misfortune instead.

Unwelcome never slows down enough to properly build tension. The Whelan family are certainly very unpleasant, but never become real characters to be properly frightening. And the only person in the entire town who seems to know anything about the Powrie is Maeve, who fails to really give enough detail about why they're to be feared/respected. Jamie's Aunt may have entered into some bargain with the little people, but it doesn't follow suit that Maya has to continue it, particularly since they don't seem to be intimidating the rest of village (not in an organised way, at least).


On a social-level, the film deals with its very specific themes very acutely, but there's little beyond that. Horror works best as metaphor; this is just a modern retooling of the Hammer-era folk chiller (by way of Dog Soldiers, then by way of Labyrinth) using mawkish audience manipulation rather than actual storycraft. If anything, it's disappointingly literal.

When the film finally lets rip with its bloodsoaked finale, the story has spent so long gleefully abusing its protagonists that all of the inbuilt ridiculous humour instantly evaporates, but the focused urge for crimson revenge isn't quite there either as the bad guys are split over two hastily sketched - but entirely separate - groups.

I can envision Unwelcome playing really well to a packed film-festival crowd who are into the corniness and care slightly less about pacing, but in a quarter-full multiplex screening this sort of fell on its arse a bit. The lack of atmosphere in the room is not the film-makers' fault of course, but that does affect a viewer's perception of what they're watching. A civilian audience isn't going to wryly guffaw at a heavily pregnant woman being terrorised for over an hour and a half.

This is a weird little first-draft of a movie. As a trashy, cautionary-horror flick it's absolutely fine, but there's the unscratched-itch that Unwelcome could have used its runtime for something much smarter and more meaningful...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.