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Blithe Spirit

Comedy, Home, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Playwright Noel Coward charmed audiences in the 1940s with his elegant wit and word play. But he is not old enough to be truly classic and too recent to feel contemporary. Anyone approaching Coward’s work today has a choice to make, try to ‘update’ him, or go for loving period recreation. TV director Edward Hall (best known for shows such as Downton Abbey) goes very much for the latter. And this turns out to be the film’s main appeal in a way, which is to damn it with faint praise.

The film certainly does look lovely, the clothes and hairstyles are spot on and the Sussex mansion where the main action takes place is a masterpiece of 1930s design. The problem though, is that the material hasn’t aged quite as well as the décor.

The main idea – of a slightly madcap story in which a desperate writer is tormented by the ghost of his ex-wife, has to be done in a certain way, or the contrivances begin to show. Hall has one more ace up his sleeve, though – an excellent cast who relish the script.

As with any such comedy, the plot is both full of intricate mishaps and generally, in the service of tormenting the protagonists. The lead is tormented from the start. Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is struggling to finish his overdue screenplay for a bossy movie mogul. Having another elegant cocktail isn’t going to get that script written but Charles and his young wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) want to enjoy their new marriage and they have a giddy round of social obligations to fit in also.

When, for a laugh, the couple host a séance led by a slightly shonky psychic called Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), they inadvertently unleash the capricious ghost Elvira (Leslie Mann), who is Charles’ recently-deceased first wife.

This is touted as Dame Judi Dench’s funniest role in years. Actually, you could equally argue that – great thespian though she is – her part is underwritten. Her Madame Arcati is an odd creation, at times a moth-eaten figure of fun and at others a potion-brewing witch out of Macbeth. A further problem is that her character is being gently mocked. It is not that we don’t care whether she is a real medium or not (really, she is there to facilitate the plot), it is that the satirical target has shrunk over the years. No one knows what a theosophist is anymore and, if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.

The more pressing issue perhaps is the play’s sexual politics. The idea of a decent but put-upon chap outwitted and then tormented by ‘his’ women might have seemed vaguely daring then. Today, the whole premise is dated.

Weighing against that is the energy and comedic timing of the players, with Isla Fisher in particular showing her natural ability as a comic actor. She is a lot of fun to watch and she steals a lot of the scenes she is in.

The film is never a bore (the worst thing to be in Coward’s upper crust circles) and for that we must be thankful. Still, it never quite flies either. Hail to thee blithe spirit, but bird thou still isn’t.

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Trailer: Rutherford Falls

Creator Michael Schur (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) looks like he's re-envisioned his own Parks & Recreation for this series starring Ed Helms.
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Days of the Bagnold Summer

Comedy, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Days of the Bagnold Summer is an upbeat, positive comedy that explores the chasm between a librarian single-mother, and her shy but heavy-metal obsessed teenage son.

In its early scenes, the film is set up to explore Daniel, played by Earl Cave, whose planned trip to Florida with his estranged Dad has been cancelled. Instead, he is stuck with his librarian mother for six weeks, whose optimistic personality makes his life miserable. Cave conveys a bleak, anti-social attitude dressed in head-to-toe black attire, while shoving in earphones with heavy metal music to drown out the world’s noise. However, it is clear over time that this persona may be an affectation that does not reflect who he is as a person. With glimmers of care for his mother, and his family dog, as well as a blind rage at his friend Ky for mocking his passions, the film suggests this persona is a veneer to emotionally disconnect from others.

While Daniel feels central early on, the film equally invests in the character of Sue, who evokes greater sympathy as she navigates heavy emotional burdens with an earnest optimism. Monica Dolan expertly instils a nervous twitchiness to Sue that is easy to sympathise with, but also expresses an outpouring of emotion when she bursts into tears in one scene on account of juggling numerous hardships.

On the one hand, she desperately tries to establish a relationship with her disappointed son who cannot go to America, while also combatting her own loneliness. In one sped-up montage, Sue whizzes in and out of the kitchen completing countless daily chores, while Daniel is unmoved on the table on his phone. Meanwhile, sleazy history teacher Mr. Porter, played by Rob Brydon, manipulates her into a romantic interlude with a painful realisation which challenges her sense of goodwill toward people.

Although together as family, they have an icy relationship with very little emotional connection. This animosity thaws as they become understanding of each other’s needs. From the outsider’s perspective, it feels like they have a palpable history that is not contrived in any way. The seamless repartee they engage in feels like their conversations have played thousands of times before, and their lives plausibly exist outside of what is seen on screen.

Notably, the film is very beautifully shot, with symmetrical framing reminiscent of Wes Anderson. In particular, characters are often seen through windows or doorways that symbolises an emotional disconnect, as well as a literal reduction in size that implies being subsumed by a societal pressure.

 

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Ken Mok Meets The Right One

The successful producer makes the transition to writing/directing indie romcom The Right One starring Cleopatra Coleman, Nick Thune, Iliza Shlesinger and David Koechner.