Film review – Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017)

Julian Barrett and Simon Farnaby have come together to create a brilliantly British comedy in Mindhorn, with the pair co-writing and co-starring in a story about a washed up actor who can’t let go of his former glories.

Barrett takes the role of Richard Thorncroft, who is better known as the titular TV detective Mindhorn. Twenty-five years after his show was axed, disgraced Thorncroft is desperately in need of a fresh angle to kick start his career. The love of his life and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) has now married Clive Parnevik (Farnaby), who was previously a stunt double for Mindhorn. When a police investigation into a probable murderer called Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) takes a bizarre turn, Thorncroft is brought on board to help talk to the man and discover the real truth.

The jokes come thick and fast, though many could be easily missed for those not tuned into this style of comedy. Plenty of the beats come from Alan Partridge and it does feel like a variation on the script for Alpha Papa. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Incidentally, Steve Coogan appears as a rival and former co-Star of Thorncroft named Pete Eastman.

The story is quirky, but comedies live and die on the amount of laughs they deliver. In this sense, Mindhorn soars. From the nuanced references to 1980s British television, to cringeworthy moments largely shared between Barrett and Farnaby, it is hilarious from start to finish.

Foreign markets are yet to experience the brilliance of the film. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how it will land. The humour is distinctly British, whatever that means. Mind you, it’s more accessible than the likes of Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh, which all enjoyed global audiences, so hopefully I am wrong on that front.

This isn’t the kind of film that rises to the top of the charts on its first week of release. Instead, I’m predicting it will follow the path of Anchorman and Hot Rod to become a comedy sleeper hit that people will talk about in a few years’ time.

Do yourself a favour and get in on the act now. You can’t handcuff the wind.

Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Video game review – Yooka-Yaylee (Playtonic Games, 2017)

Version reviewed: Xbox One

Yooka-Laylee has finally arrived on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, bringing to an end one of the most successful video game crowd-sourced campaigns of all time. Launched on Kickstarter on 1st May 2015, it reached its initial target of £175,000 within 38 minutes and its stretchiest of stretch goals (£1,000,000) in 21 hours. Clearly this indicated a thirst from the fans of the studio, Playtonic Games, which had behind it four of the key players from Rare’s heyday in the mid 1990s:  Chris Sutherland, Steve Mayles, Steven Hurst, and Grant Kirkhope. 

If you’re unsure, Rare was the video gaming powerhouse that came to prominence in the 1990s with games such as Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Donkey Kong Country. Both Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel Banjo-Tooie were laced with a charm and humour typical of Britain, with sign-posted gags coupled with animation that stood out at the time as exemplary. The games were also a lot of fun to play through, with the right amount of collecting and story development to keep even the most easily distracted 10-year-old interested. 

So it’s understandable that the gaming community was so enthusiastic about getting a spiritual sequel to Banjo-Kazooie.

When I started up Yooka-Laylee, the memories of Banjo-Kazooie came flooding back. As these memories engulfed my mind I couldn’t help but wonder whether time hadn’t been quite as kind to the original games as my romanticised view of them. 

The opening sequence is extremely pedestrian, with the criminal mastermind called General B. at his headquarters called Hivory Towers. There is no big wow factor, just a bit of a conversation that introduces the characters. He has created an evil device that has stolen a magical book from our heroes. This book has golden pages and within a short while we are told we must retrieve all of the pages (named “pagies”) to restore balance in the universe. Or something like that. It’s a McGuffin typical of 1990s platformers – go to several worlds and collect everything to complete the game. 

The look and feel of the game is brilliantly nostalgic for an era that doesn’t often get treated as being retro, although sadly it definitely is now. It harkens back to the Nintendo 64 era, so it’s 3D but not as beautifully rendered as more recent titles.

This is both a good and bad thing.

I don’t know whether it was intentional, but the camera issues that blighted video games for years has come back to bite us again. It’s highly frustrating and was the cause of several issues in the opening world when all I was doing was simply jumping between platforms. It’s poor design that this can cause failure and unfortunately my patience isn’t quite the same as two decades ago – I genuinely don’t have hours and hours to sink into video games per week so wasting 30 minutes jumping up some platforms just isn’t something I enjoy.

The soundtrack, however, is on the positive side of nostalgia and one that brilliantly fits with the retro design of the game. David Wise, Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke are behind it, and these were frequently involved with Rare’s most famous soundtracks. I’m annoyed I didn’t opt for the soundtrack option when I originally backed it, but I’m sure there will be a way to rectify this soon! 

Rextro can go swivel


As the game progresses, so does the difficulty. This generally means that the collectibles aren’t sat in such obvious positions on the level, hidden in holes and requiring more skill to unlock. By the final world, the frustration at poor controls and cameras comes back and you’re left wishing you’d never started the mini-golf challenge in the first place.

A key part of the game is the Rextro Arcade challenges, which take 8-bit-inspired gaming and set mini challenges to beat the game and then the high score. These largely provide a lot of fun to proceedings until the bugs take over and you’re left short of a high score through no fault of your own.

The end result on initial play through is one that almost hits the spot but makes me wish they’d had a longer player testing period. This often gets pushed back if programming overruns, and there will doubtless been a lot of back and forth between the coding and testing departments. I just wonder whether everyone’s view became muddied before the final release of the game.

Film review – Alien (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 1979)

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Alien. I’m sure I was far too young. I know this because I remember I was really sad I couldn’t see Alien 3 at the cinema. I’ve calculated that I was eight years old at the time. Why was I gutted? Because I’d already seen the first two films and didn’t want to wait.

Yes, that’s right. Somehow either my mum was supremely lenient or we pulled a fast one on her and managed to get a VHS copy of both films.

Looking back on the 1979 debut, it’s easy to see what the appeal was for a eight-year-old. Sure, the heart of the film lies in a character-driven plot and it’s powered by Scott’s unwavering ability to build suspense. At the time I wasn’t sat there thinking “Well, Parker and Brett have an agenda now because of this pay dispute, so this is going to get really interesting.” No. I was looking at the alien, the guns, the space travel and the explosions.

All of these things are, unquestionably, of great appeal to a child. Or, at least, they were to this child.


It was great, then, to finally see this masterpiece of cinema on the big screen as part of Alien Day. As an adult. And, completing the circle, with my mum as well. 

It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the big sceeen, away from disturbances that home viewing might detract from the experience. 

The film was originally released in 1979, in the midst of the wave of hysteria for space-based films created by Star Wars. However, it is very much the antethesis of the 1977 space opera. The distant past setting is replaced with a not-too-distant future. The bright and open planets are replaced with a singular, isolated spaceship. The droids played for light relief are dropped in favour of a malfunctioning synthetic human with a hidden agenda.

Indeed, whilst the film may have seemed like a lucrative prospect for 20th Century Fox after Star Wars, Alien owes a lot more to films like Jaws or Forbidden Planet in both tone and pacing.

It is a film about isolation, playing on the claustrophobia of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and allowing your survival instincts to take over. 


Jerry Goldsmith’s score, conducted by Lionel Newman and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, may be one of the most perfectly-suited film scores ever crafted. It starts off exactly where the audience do at the beginning of the film – somewhere between romanticism and intrigue. As the horror unfolds, the score increases in intensity and loses any sweetness it ever had, heightening every moment we see on screen.

The set design and the Alien itself was famously designed by surrealist artist H. R. Giger. It’s as iconic as the film itself, critical to the story and heightening the horror when we eventually see the creature fully formed in the final act of the film.

It was a hard act to follow and they’ve spent 38 years trying to reach the heights of the original film. James Cameron’s sequel may be preferred by some, but for me you simply can’t compare that to the original. They are in the same universe but are completely different genres, one wrapped in suspense and the other all-out action.

Theatre Review – Hello, Dolly! (Jerry Zaks, Sam S. Shubert Theater, 17th March 2017)

Note: This is a review of a preview of Hello, Dolly! Out of respect for the performance I only published it after the opening night. 

The first time I saw Hello, Dolly! was when I was 27 and preparing for an amateur production of the great musical in England. I had been cast in the role of Cornelius Hackl, the employee of Horace Vandergelder who has just been promoted from impertinent fool to chief clerk. Popping out of the store room box in the opening scene is exciting for all Cornelius-portrayers the world over – for two reasons. Firstly, you get to deliver your hotly-anticipated opening line in the show and finally get a glimpse of the audience. Secondly, it means you can breathe properly for the first time since lights down – you’ve been trapped with your assistant Barnaby in a tiny box for the last 15 minutes as the rest of the characters are introduced to the audience at a seemingly excruciatingly slow pace.

I was relaying this information to the perfectly lovely gentleman who was stood next to me at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on Friday night when I asked him “So are you involved in this production at all?”. “Why yes,” he responded, “I’m the director.”

That would be four-time Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks. [1]

Outside the theatre

His production of Hello, Dolly!, set to run at the Sam S. Shubert Theater from 20th April, is exactly what you would hope to see from a Broadway version of a musical that has been around for the last 50 years. It simply oozes quality and class.

The opening number “Call On Dolly” is full of bright and wonderful costumes with perfectly-precise movement from the ensemble. Warren Carlyle’s choreography at this point is nothing too complicated, but there’s a certain beauty in its simplicity – a matter counterbalanced with “The Waiters’ Gallop” in the second half.

The real star of the show, inevitably, is Bette Midler. As the titular character she is able to sweep from playful to heartbroken in the space of a song. Done correctly, it is a surprisingly nuanced character. She is larger than life when she’s entertaining guests, putting on a show for the cast and the audience in equal measures. However, when she is alone she reveals what drives her throughout the story – her lost love and former husband Ephram Levi. Midler may have the audience in stitches when she’s slowly eating a delicious chicken dinner, but they’re eating the palm of her hand when she’s speaking from her heart.

David Hyde Pierce is a great counterpoint for Midler as the angry shop owner and “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. He is a seasoned Broadway star, winning a Tony Award in 2008 for his role in Curtains. It was great to finally see “Penny in my Pocket” restored and performed in front of the curtain at the start of the second act. It’s a song that’s great for someone like Pierce – full of characterisation and expression. It was cut from previous Broadway runs to shorten the second half.

Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl), Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), Taylor Trensch (Barnaby Tucker) and Beanie Feldstein (Minnie Fay) are all brilliant in their Horace-avoiding storyline, with “Elegance” a particular highlight in the second half. Creel’s rendition of “It Only Takes A Moment” with Baldwin was simply beautiful; a clear sign that musical director Andy Einhorn can get the best out of his performers.

The tickets for this production may well sell because Bette Midler is such a huge star and is massively popular on Broadway, with David Hyde Pierce also offering added interest. However, what audiences will find is a musical that is excellent across the board, from the back row of the ensemble to the lead star, with not a thread on a costume out of place.

To think that what I saw was supposed to be a preview, I only wish I could see it when it hits the full run.

It will be a smash.

[1] It was to my shame that I didn’t recognise Jerry Zaks. He was the perfect gentleman. By the time we had started chatting he had already noticed that we hadn’t got a Playbill and found an usher to retrieve a couple for us. What kind of director does that?! He seemed genuinely interested in whether we were enjoying the show, seeking us out at the end to garner our opinion before signing our programme. Great job sir and thank you for finding the time to talk to us.

Theatre review – Waitress (Diane Paulus, American Repertory Theater, 18th March 2017)

As the star of the show, Jessie Mueller, leads the performance tonight for the final time, I thought it was a good time to write about how lucky I feel to have been able to catch one of her last appearances. 

It has been on Broadway for just under one year, but it felt completely fresh when we saw a matinee performance on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.

The first thing you notice as you walk through the doors at he Repertory is the smell of delicious baking pies. They have pies on sale; I have no idea how I resisted. 

The hallway is decked out like the inside of a café and bakery, with some themed merchandise available. Walking past this and into the theatre, you’re greeted with a stage set that starts to tell the story – pies up the wall providing an edge to the proscenium arch and curtains that would soon reveal a bustling and busy Joe’s Diner, where most of our story is set.

“It only takes a taste”


The story is based on the 2007 film of the same name. Jenna Hunterson (Mueller) is a waitress in  the aforementioned café somewhere in the deepest heart of southern USA. Every day she bakes a new flavour of fresh pie, much to the delight of the frequently-returning customers. She is in a dead-end relationship with aggressive musician Earl (William Popp) and feels her job isn’t going anywhere either. Instead, she gives herself fully to the sugar, butter and flour of her baking, daydreaming as she recalls happier times as a child when she baked with her mother. Her close friendship to two work colleagues – the positively sassy Becky (Charity Angél Dawson) and nervous Dawn (Caitlin Houlahan) – helps her retain her sanity. When she finds out she’s unexpectedly pregnant with Earl’s child, she has to take a visit to her doctor. However, her regular doctor has now retired and has been replaced with the young and handsome Dr Jim Pomatter (Drew Gehling), who appears as interested in Jenna as he is with her fantastic baking ability.

There were some hot tickets on Broadway the week we visited, with Inside Evan Hansen and a previewing Hello, Dolly! garnering the most interest outside the top tier musicals Like Hamilton, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon. It was, therefore, a shock to discover just how good this musical is, with a plot as deep as one of Jenna’s deep-dish blueberry pies.

“What a mess I’m making”


This is a musical that touches on failed life goals, unwanted pregnancies, extra-marital affairs and the acceptance of compromise. It’s all done, for the most part, with a touch of humour and grace that elevates the more sombre moments.

But it doesn’t just stop there. Most of the plot and delivery is taken or derived from the story of the original film, so the thing that really sets it apart from its origins is the fine music provided by Sara Barielles. The songs are suitably pitched somewhere between Americana and country, perfect for the setting. They are simply excellent songs. 

The comedy pairing of Dawn and Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald) supplies plenty of laughs and they are given two of the most memorable songs: “When He Sees Me” and “Never Gonna Let You Go”. Becky gets her chance to shine early in the second half with “I Didn’t Plan It”. But it is inevitably Jenna that gets the opportunity to wow the audiences with some of the best songs in a new musical this decade: show opener “What’s Inside?”, “What Baking Can Do” and “Everything Changes”.

Losing an iconic star of a musical always risks feeling like the end of a chapter, though with show writer Sara Bareilles ready to step into the role she created there is a sense of excitement over where it will go. Losing Mueller is a great loss and her infectious enthusiasm for the show has clearly affected the whole cast. With the male leads also being replaced the whole show will feel completely refreshed (Chris Diamantopoulous and Will Swenson take over as Dr. Pomatter and Earl respectively on 31st March).

Here’s hoping the changes to the cast will breathe yet more life into it and see its popularity grow.

 

An energetic tourist’s day in New York 

I’ve recently come back from a short break in New York and I can’t help but wish I’d gone much sooner in my life. 32 is far too late to visit this wonderful city!

On one of the days, I managed to pack in a huge amount of activities and walking into one day. To achieve this you will need to be moderately fit – I run half-marathons so my stamina is certainly up to it, whilst my wife regularly does assault course races and boot camps.

The result is approximately 10k of walking, taking in four of the cities most renowned landmarks.

Morning
9/11 Memorial and Museum

07:30 – Starting from our hotel on 77th and Broadway in uptown Manhattan, we set off for the 9/11 Memorial Museum and World Trade Centre via the 2 or 3 subway line. 

08:00 – Beforehand we got breakfast at the nearby Hudson Eats, an upscale eatery in Brookfield Place that will satisfy any palet and any amount of hunger. We allowed an hour for this so arrived at 8am.

09:00 – We pre-booked our ticket for the museum at 9am but this wasn’t totally necessary – it was quite easy to get in.

You just need to know that the museum is adjacent to ground zero of both the north and south trade centre. It isn’t overly obvious where it is but there are loads of helpful staff members to guide you in. 

It’s a truly important and essential piece of New York’s history and can’t be missed.
I’d leave about 3 hours to get around this place. You don’t want to rush it.

Afternoon
Liberty Island and Ellis Island

The afternoon was all about visiting Liberty Island and Ellis Island, including the world-famous Statue of Liberty.

12:00 – We set off from the museum on foot at midday, allowing ourselves 20 minutes to get over there.

There is a ferry operating from Battery Park, which allows you to get to Liberty Island and then venture on to Ellis Island whenever you’re ready.

The official website is at Statue Cruises. You want at least the “reserve” tickets, though buying sooner will guarantee entry to the pedestal (the base of the statue) or to the crown if you buy around three months in advance.

12:30 – The queuing situation there is pretty abysmal. It’s pandemonium and the people working there have no idea about how to be helpful. In contrast to the brilliant help we got at the 9/11 memorial, here we were told incorrectly to queue in two different lines before ignoring both pieces of advice and using our own logic to work out where we needed to go. 

Essentially, if you have pre-bought, go straight to the main queue that says “reserve” in big lettering.

13:00 – Once on the boat, head for the top deck on the right hand side near the front for the best views and photograph opportunities on the approach to the statue. The photo below is from the top left, so we got the best views too early in the journey.

13:30 – For an additional challenge at the statue, try walking or running up the staircase. You’ll probably feel a burn at the top but you’ll save queuing time.

The statue itself is pretty stunning. Take a moment to soak in the grandness of it. There are lots of people everywhere taking photos and this is important, but like all great monuments it’s easy to forget to look at and absorb it.

15:00 – After getting your photos, it’s time to leave for Ellis Island. This is essentially a museum about immigration, which is really informative and educational. However, we didn’t spend too long here – most of it can be learned about in books or online. Sorry guys! It’s nothing personal!!

16:00 – Take the ferry back, being sure to follow the signs for Battery Park, New York rather than Jersey.

Distance = 1287m distance with a 27m climb in the pedestal (+46m in the statue itself if you buy in time)

Evening
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset

One of the cliche activities in New York is so popular simply because the views you get are so beautiful, though you won’t see those until later in the evening.

16:30 – Setting off from Battery Park, set your target for Park Row at the North end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Once there, find the Brooklyn Bridge Walkway (signposted) and set off on your trip over the bridge. There’s no rush here. Indeed, rushing is nigh on impossible with such large crowds.

17:15 – At the other side of the bridge, waiting for you is probably the best pizzeria in New York, Juliana’s Pizza. It’s located at 19 Old Fulton St, Brooklyn, NY 11201. Trust me, after all that walking you’ll be glad of the sit down. We were able to split a large pizza in two by having completely different toppings, and the total price – with two alcoholic drinks and a sizeable whole apple pie for dessert – was still only $60 including tax and a tip.

19:30 (or later depending on time at restaurant) – Walking back along the Brooklyn Bridge is the time when you’re really rewarded. The whole of Manhattan is now completely lit up and you get in the best uninterrupted views of the main centre of the city. Bask in it and feel your enriched life thanking you for excellent life choices.

Evening walk = 1600m to Park Row, 2414m to Juliana’s Pizza, 2500m back across the bridge to your favoured subway station.

Total walking activities 

21:00 – By the end of the day we were both absolutely tired out and ready for bed. The sense of achievement and knowledge we’d maximised our time in the city whilst getting fitter through walking was wonderfully satisfying.

Total walking distance = 7801m plus exhibition walking plus a 27m or 73m climb inside the Statue of Liberty.